Everyone knows the Wright brothers and what they did, but how many people really know about their lives and what it took for them to accomplish their goal of building the first plane piloted by a man? Do we know about them as individuals? Of how their unique personality traits were instrumental in their ability to succeed where others have failed? In fact, how many people really know anything more about their history than the minimal bit taught in textbooks? If I had to take a guess the answer would be very few. The fact that I know so little is what gave me my initial boost to start learning more about the people responsible for making the world of today.
That being said, David McCullough, who is very well known for his exceptional books about U.S history, shares the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright like none before him.
McCullough is an exemplary writer and teacher of history. His style is captivating and entertaining, which, in my opinion, is how history should be taught. He goes deeper than simple dates and events, narrowing in on the emotions being felt and the internal workings behind major historical events. I have heard of the Wright Brothers, as almost everyone has, but what I didn’t know was how they came to invent the plane. The how, not just the what, has inspired me in ways I never thought this story could.
Using the multitude of letters and journal entries left behind by the members of the Wright family as well as those associates with whom they interacted during the years of their experimentation, McCullough teases out the story of their lives with admirable humility and respect. Reading this was like walking with Wilbur and Orville from their youth to when they first began experimenting with the science of flight, experiencing their success and failures as they worked through the minute details, and watching breathlessly as they fly for the first time in Ohio, Paris, and Washington D.C.
History is often a story told by the winners, with details fudged or exaggerated for one reason or another. I’ve had to read some textbooks where certain information I was all too familiar with had been embellished to serve the opinion of the author and it’s a disturbing thing to come upon. In The Wright Brothers, it was with added respect and satisfaction that I found the author to be honorable and humble in that he would leave gaps in the story where information and research failed to reveal any details. McCullough’s skill allows the reader to look upon such gaps without much loss from the story, moving past the timeline’s blank spaces to absorb the records that have survived the test of time.
Surprisingly, what stood out to me the most was not the story of how the first plane was built, rather the intimate life story of the two men responsible. Though we give them credit for their discovery most people know little to nothing about the two men themselves and that is the greater shame. These men were examples in social and moral conduct, living true to themselves and to their ideals. McCullough draws attention to the fact that many people who met, interacted with, or saw the Wright brothers noticed that they seemed immune to the pressures of society. If they didn’t feel comfortable flying on a day when the conditions weren’t ideal then they simply wouldn’t; it didn’t matter if 5,000 people had come to see them. There was a time when the President of the United States had asked to sit as passenger for one of the flights and Orville had the presence of mind to reject the idea on the grounds that he didn’t want to be responsible in the event that something happened and the President was harmed or killed. These men knew who they were and what they stood for and didn’t waver for anything or anyone; I wish there were more people like this in the world today and I deeply honor the men and women who can reject the pressures of society and can recognize how they as individuals can change a situation, or even history.
How many people want to accomplish something with their lives? Hopefully everyone, but I don’t believe myself to be alone when I say that the greatest struggle is figuring out where and how to start. Wilbur and Orville accomplished something that was believed to be impossible through determination, diligence, and dedication. They dedicated their lives to the pursuit of aviation and anything less may have lead to our never hearing the names Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their life stories establish a model for those wishing to do as they did and stretch in the pursuit of new heights. Pun most definitely intended.
I have never been much of a nonfiction reader. David McCullough, along with Malcolm Gladwell and a few other authors, has helped change my perspective. McCullough makes the events of history seem more compelling and interesting compared to many fiction authors I have read before. History should only be taught like this: with the stories brought to life and made relatable to us. Otherwise, how are we ever going to apply the events of the past to our lives today? Reading about our history is the best way to learn from the past in order to make the future a brighter place.