I love meticulously researched history books and last week I finally got around to reading David McCullough’s fascinating The Wright Brothers. Ten takeaways:
1. Wilbur and Orville were earnest, plain-spoken, celebrity-averse, hard-working engineers. They didn’t have flashy personalities that provide great material for a biography. They were simple bachelors who lived with their father and sister their whole lives (their mom died when they were boys). The brothers show what you can do if you don’t care what the naysayers nay and if you don’t give up.
2. I appreciate Wilbur’s wisdom, which has proved true in my life. He said, “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio” (12).
3. How did all the major newspapers miss breaking the Wright brothers’ story? The brothers were test flying their plane in a field near Dayton. Their first significant press came from a Medina beekeeper who drove down from Northeast Ohio. As an editor at the Dayton Daily News later admitted, “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”
4. The Wright brothers were builders and mechanics of a new invention, the bicycle. I was surprised that some folks initially protested bikes. They allowed youth to stray far from home, and who knew what trouble they’d get into? And bikes distracted kids from reading books. These protests now sound dumb, a cautionary tale about protesting the latest technology. With that said, cell phones are destroying lives.
5. People in the first decade of the twentieth century overdressed. The Wright brothers wore suits while working on and flying their plane in the scorching sands of Kitty Hawk. The first ladies to fly with Wilbur and Orville tied a rope around their long dresses at the ankles to keep the wind from blowing them open and giving the people below a cheap show. These modest people would be shocked to see what people wear today, to church!
6. Wilbur and Orville observed the Sabbath. Even when running test flights at Kitty Hawk, or later when thousands gathered for a flying demonstration, it was understood that they would not work on Sunday. Did this steadfast observance contribute to their longevity and production?
7. The brothers observed a Sabbath but didn’t attend church. Sadly, though their father was a bishop in the United Brethren Church, he didn’t seem to mind their lack of commitment. According to McCullough, “religion was scarcely mentioned in his letters to his children, or in what they wrote to him” (18).
8. Flying was dangerous business. A broken propeller once crashed Orville’s plane and killed his passenger. But the brothers kept at it, never flying together until much later, in case an accident would kill both of them and end their dream. Wilbur said there was no other way to learn how to fly than to learn how to fly. A person had to keep at it. He “must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial” (68).
9. The Wrights spent much time defending their patents and themselves against lawsuits. The business side was a distraction that could not be helped. How much further might have they advanced if they hadn’t been preoccupied with the business of flying? They also spent much time in Europe, bargaining with investors and the governments of France, England, and Germany.
10. Orville lived long enough to see their invention become the bombers of World War II. To use Al Wolters’ categories, the structure of their technology was used in an evil direction. The brothers couldn’t have been surprised, as the first bidders for their planes were the militaries of various governments. Orville seemed ambivalent. He later said,
“We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong…. No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses” (260-61).
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