'The Wright Brothers': Author David McCullough on the Duo Who Taught the World to Fly

As his new biography "The Wright Brothers" releases today, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and acclaimed historian David McCullough shares some life lessons from the courageous brothers who ushered in the age of flight.
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As his new biography "The Wright Brothers" releases today, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and acclaimed historian David McCullough shares some life lessons from the courageous brothers who ushered in the age of flight.
Wright Brothers Photo

After four years of experimentation, the Wright Brothers had their first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their Wright Flyer was the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.  (Photo: John T. Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hopping on a flight and crisscrossing the world is no big deal today, but in the not-so-distant past travel by air was unfathomable. We owe our frequent flying to the visionary minds of brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who dramatically changed the world with the first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903. It's their story of genius, courage, integrity and sheer gumption to succeed that unfolds dramatically in Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough's new biography The Wright Brothers.

The acclaimed historian gives us a glimpse into the lives of Orville and Wilbur and shares what we can all learn from their unflagging pursuit of what others deemed impossible.  

What drew to you to write about the Wright Brothers? 

After I finished writing my last book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, I was still so fascinated by the Americans who went to Paris to improve their skills or understanding of their professions. That book had focused on the 19th Century, and now I was very motivated to move on to the 20th Century. There’s already been quite a great deal written about the “Lost Generation” of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and others. I focused on a number of others from that time of considerable importance. I was surprised to find Wilbur and Orville Wright among those who were in Paris during the early 20th Century, and that their time spent there was of the utmost importance to their overall contribution.  

David McCullough Photo

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough was partly inspired to write his new book "The Wright Brothers," because "their story had powerful lessons we can all learn from." (Photo: William B. McCullough)

I began reading all about the Wrights and it took almost no time at all for me to realize this was a powerful and important story, and one I wanted to write. I also felt that by covering them and the advent of the airplane, I would be continuing in my interest in achievements against the odds. I have already written books about the huge endeavors of building the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. The progression to the airplane seemed to make a great deal of sense. I also feel that there is so much more to be said about our story as a country in the realm of history other than politics and war, and the story of the Wright brothers is a superb example of that. The more I learned about these two men and understood what they were like, the more I felt that their story had powerful lessons we can all learn from.

What qualities did the Wright brothers possess that, in your opinion, gave them an advantage over competitors also looking to create the first plane?

The Wright Brothers Book Cover

"The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough  is published by Simon & Schuster.

They were both brilliant. They weren’t just a couple of clever bicycle mechanics who got lucky. I’m convinced, and it’s self-evident once you know the full story, that Wilbur Wright was a genius. Orville was exceptional in his inventive talents as well. They were also incredibly courageous. We have to remember that every time they went up on one of their experimental flights they were risking their lives. They were so aware of this that the brothers refused to go up together so that if one was killed, the other could still carry on their mission. They were so driven by their belief, confidence, and determination to succeed. They took on this mission the way some people would follow a religious conviction. They had a cause and they would not give up; they never let failure or disappointment discourage them. If knocked down, they got back up on their feet and kept going. Call it perseverance, call it determination, call it gumption, call it what you will. They didn’t complain, blame others, or resort to self-pity. How to handle failure is a very important lesson in life. The Wright brothers were models of integrity.

I also think it’s worth noting that the Wright brothers were determined to do everything themselves. They had no financial backers, no college education, no connections in high places. And further, people in their own neighborhood and in Washington ridiculed them for thinking they could achieve their goal. Still, they weren’t thrown. 

Lastly, their command of the English language was impressive. Because of how they were brought up, they knew how to write and speak in a way very few people could. They were incredibly articulate and spoke with such inspiration about their mission. Reading their diaries, one is humbled. It is astounding to think the diaries were written by two men who never finished high school.

How would you describe the dynamic between the two brothers? It would seem as if Wilbur had a bigger role in the public perception when in fact there was a real interdependent partnership.

Wilbur Wright Photo

Wilbur Wright in 1905. (Photo: Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright (credited as photographers) [1], [2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Two heads were better than one, but yes, Wilbur was the dominant force in the partnership. He was the big brother, the leader. Orville was shy and never wanted to give a talk in front of an audience. He would leave that to Wilbur. When it came time to decide who would go to France to demonstrate the plane in front of large public crowds, there was no question Wilbur should do it. 

Orville Wright Photo

Orville Wright in 1905. (Photo: Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orville had what was referred to in the family as his “peculiar spells” when he would get tired, touchy, and his good spirits thrown off track. They didn’t last long, but it was a characteristic they had to cope with. Wilbur sometimes appeared withdrawn from society and overly serious, but he really wasn’t. Both had a wonderful sense of humor. They worked together superbly. They often argued and had heated, long arguments about the best solution to the work they were doing. They would argue so long and so fiercely that if enough time went by, they would end up reversing their own positions, having been convinced by the other. This was their way of sorting out the tangle of the ideas and challenges facing them.

A standout character in the book is Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur. Why was she so important to the story?

I believe in giving credit where credit is long overdue, and this remarkable woman deserves to be front and center stage. I was reminded in writing about her and reading her letters of the role played by Emily Roebling in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or of Abigail Adams in the story of John Adams and the founding of our country. Katharine was intelligent, funny, and highly opinionated. She was the most sociable of the Wright siblings. But she also had a temper, which was sometimes aimed at her brothers. She would keep them on the straight and narrow. And she was there when they needed her, always. Of course one of the great demonstrations of this was after Orville had his terrible crash at the Army field at Fort Myer. When Katharine heard the news, she immediately took an indefinite leave of absence from her teaching job in Dayton, got on the train and went to be with Orville. She stayed by his side and did everything she could to comfort and encourage him during his recovery, both in spirit and health. In many ways, I think she saved his life. If nothing else, she saved his outlook on life.  

Orville Wilbur Katherine Wright Photo

Orville (second from left), Wilbur and Katherine Wright in 1907. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Katharine also accompanied the brothers to Europe. She caught on to speaking French (when neither brother bothered to learn the language). She loved being the toast of the town and didn’t mind being in the limelight. She’s a very entertaining, likable character. I wish I’d known her. I’m pleased to give Katharine her due time in the limelight in a book for the first time. She was instrumental in my efforts to pull back the curtain and show readers the human side of the Wright brothers. I read through her private letters, which have largely been overlooked until now. There are more than 1,000 private family letters in the great Wright Collection at The Library of Congress, and these were an essential element of my work on the book.

Neither brother went to college, but they were extremely knowledgeable about physics and other advanced subjects. How did they foster this education?

Wilbur and Orville grew up in a house where there was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and no telephone. But there were a lot of books. Their father stocked the house with great books of fiction, history, encyclopedias, natural history, poetry, and theology (his profession). Their father, Bishop Wright, was a great reader and he instilled in his children a love of reading. The whole family frequented the public library in Dayton, Ohio. Katharine was such a fan of reading that on one of her birthdays, Wilbur and Orville gave her a bust of Sir Walter Scott.   

Wilbur especially was interested in nearly everything. He could talk for hours about architecture, history, or his fascination with birds. When Wilbur first got to Paris, he was seen at every opportunity walking the Louvre studying the paintings. We know from his letters to home that he visited the museum at least fifteen times. He would also take notes on the architectural treasures of Paris and write about them at length in his letters to Katharine and Bishop Wright. Both brothers were truly fully cultured men, and it all began at home.

Was there anything in your research that you were surprised to learn or found particularly fascinating? 

Yes! I came across the story of how Wilbur was clipped in the teeth with a hockey stick when he was playing in the neighborhood. The blow was so bad that it knocked out all of his upper front teeth. The accident was the beginning of a strange withdrawal from society for Wilbur, and he became a self-imposed recluse at home for several years. Wilbur had aspired to attend Yale, but that changed after the accident. It was then that he really began reading intensely and succeeded in getting himself what amounted to a superb liberal arts education right at home.  

Wilbur Wright Photo

A childhood portrait of Wilbur Wright taken circa 1877. Several years later in the winter of 1885-86, he became a self-imposed recluse after an incident where a neighborhood bully knocked out his front teeth with a hockey stick. (Photo: Library of Congress)

But a question has long been – who hit Wilbur with the hockey stick? Was it intentional or an accident? Well, we now know through Bishop Wright’s diary that it’s clear Wilbur was hit by a neighborhood bully, who as it turns out, went on to be one of the most notorious murderers in the history of Ohio. He killed his own mother and father and an estimated 12 others. We still don’t know if he hit Wilbur intentionally. But we do know one of the reasons this child was so strange and dangerous is because a druggist in town (for whom the boy, from a very poor family, worked as a clerk) was providing him with a pain killer to alleviate the terrible discomfort from his rotting teeth. The treatment he received was cocaine. This story is not just infinitely interesting, it’s also a sign that the late 19th Century and early 20th Century world in which the Wright brothers lived wasn’t simply an idealized Norman Rockwell situation. There was tragedy, violence, and evil just around the corner. I think that’s extremely important in understanding how American and real the Wright brothers’ story is.

What was the role of photography in the Wright brothers’ process of creating a plane?

From the very beginning, the first time Wilbur went to Kitty Hawk he took a camera with him. In the spirit of the German gliding pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who had photos taken of his experiments (and was ultimately killed during a flying experiment), the brothers wanted to have a record of each of their flights – the setting, the shape of the plane mid-air, everything. The whole story of their pioneering and their history changing success has been recorded in photography. In studying those photographs, Wilbur and Orville could learn things they missed as the event was actually happening. And, of course, they wanted to have some evidence of their contributions and success in advance of any patent suits that might result (which did eventually). And also, the brothers loved photography. They were selling photographic equipment along with bicycles and bicycle parts in their shop.

The Wright Brothers Photo

A photograph of a Wright glider taken by French aviation pioneer Octave Chanute at Kitty Hawk in 1901. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Dayton ranked first in the country relative to population in the creation of new patents. What made Dayton a hotbed of invention and do you think it contributed to the Wright brothers’ entrepreneurial spirit?

No question that their setting and the timing of their efforts had a huge impact on their story. In fact, what was happening in Dayton at the time is essential to understanding them. Dayton was a place where people were making things. Factories made big items like railroad cars, heavy machinery and cash registers, but also small things of all kinds. In photos of Dayton at the time, you can see smoke coming up everywhere across the city – a sign of enterprise, productivity, and a measure of local pride. People were trying new things all around the Wright brothers, and it was a very stimulating atmosphere. It was also a very optimistic time in American history. There was no war yet. Progress was all around in the advent of major inventions like the light bulb and the telephone. The country was prospering with an excellent economy and plentiful jobs. It was the very time that the country, with wholehearted confidence and pride undertook the Panama Canal project after the French had failed. The Wright brothers were going to not just change history; they were going to change it in a way nobody ever imagined. They lived to know they had achieved their mission, and Orville even lived to see some of the tragic consequences, like the horrors of the bombings in the World Wars, that they never could have imagined when they began working on their invention.

The Wright Brothers Photo

A program celebrating Dayton's hometown heroes Wilbur and Orville Wright. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A supporter of The Wright brothers compared their achievement to that of Christopher Columbus. Is this an appropriate comparison? If so, how? 

Yes, I think it is. Very few people have so dramatically changed the world by what they achieved, as did the Wright brothers. Consider that they flew for the first time in 1903 and that last year alone 70 million people flew in and out of the O’Hare airport in Chicago. At any given time today there are 5,000 commercial airliners in the sky. That doesn’t even count military and private aircrafts. The role of the airplane is ubiquitous, and we take it all for granted that it was not so long ago in the grand scheme of time that this amazing thing was invented. Consider this – I could have known Orville Wright. I was about 15 years old when he died. It’s just astonishing to me that we Americans are connected so closely to this incredible invention in history.

You write: “They barely flew a mile, but they had done it.” Why was that short distance considered such a big success?  

By our standards, their first flight was nothing at all. It was 120 feet, in the air for just twelve seconds. But by the end of that first day, after several flights, Wilbur had flown well over 800 feet in the air. They knew then, they had the secret to it, the technique. It wasn’t just that they had invented a machine; they knew how to fly it. That’s very important in understanding their success. It wasn’t a theoretical invention they were trying to build. Just like riding a bicycle, you can own the machinery but you need to figure out how to use it.

What lessons or advice can the Wright brothers’ story provide aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors working to create the next big thing?  

Keep at it! Have true grit, courage, and character. Know how to explain things clearly and make your case convincingly – whether on paper or on your feet. And be a gentleman or lady, be polite, have courtesy and good manners. Both Wilbur and Orville Wright were superb in that respect. They never once said anything derogatory or unpleasant about their rivals. And, of course, work hard. Oh my, could the Wright brothers work.

Charlie Taylor was the manager for the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop in Dayton while they were away and played a pivotal role in the development of the Wrights’ Flyer. Do you think he’s an unsung hero in the history of flight?                                           

Charlie Taylor is not only an unsung hero in the history of flight, he’s an unsung character who would have livened up any theatrical production or gathering. He was a wonderful, very American character. He would take on tough projects with no promise of success. He set out to build the first aluminum engine for the Wright brothers and did it successfully in no time. Again and again Charlie proved himself valuable. Wilbur and Orville both wanted Charlie with them whenever they demonstrated flights away from home. And whereas the brothers didn’t smoke, drink, or use rough language, we know Charlie did all of that. He must have been a delight to have around and good company.

Wright Brothers Home Photo

The Wright Brothers' home in Dayton, Ohio, had no electricity, telephone or plumbing, but many books that piqued the inventors' curiosity to learn. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Coming from a humble family, the Wright brothers were a rather unassuming pair, but then became global celebrities. How did they cope with the fame? 

They never changed and nothing turned their heads. They became the most famous human beings on Earth at the time, but they didn’t start dressing fancy or hobnobbing with the rich and famous. All they really wanted to do was get back to work. They found joy in their work. Any money they earned, they spent on their experiments. And they had tremendous self-control, Wilbur especially. He wouldn’t let the press divert his time and attention away from his mission. He would tolerate having reporters and curious bystanders around, up to a point, and was always perfectly polite.

How big was the threat of competing inventors and organizations spying on the Wright brothers and stealing ideas to better their own flying machines? 

The likelihood of others borrowing their ideas was very great indeed, and their concern was realistic. They weren’t concerned primarily about the financial situation at stake. What they cared most about was getting fair, appropriate credit in history for their contributions. They didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about what they had accomplished and the specifics things they ingeniously invented that made their ultimate contribution possible. The patent suits that followed were a part of the post-success experience that they loathed. It was time consuming and tiring, but they won every case in American courts. They didn’t like having to deal with business and legal affairs; they always wanted to spend their time making things.

Lieutenant Selfridge suffered the first fatality in the history of powered flight. How would you describe the public mood after realizing that flight can be as dangerous as it was miraculous?

I don’t think it diverted or hampered the public mood whatsoever. This was an obvious risk in what was an entirely new human adventure. It was tragic and a great shame. But even for the people who were there at the time of the crash, it had no detrimental effect on their enthusiasm about the importance of flight.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough is on sale now.