Book Review: The Wright Brothers


Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street, Dayton, Ohio

Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street, Dayton, Ohio

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.
– Wilbur Wright, The Wright Brothers

I bawled my eyes out when I read these first words in David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.  Why?  If we want to succeed in life, it helps a lot if we win the parent lottery.

Yes, the Wright brothers were brilliant, tenacious, resourceful, and hard-working.  But, they also had a very solid foundation in life as well as amazing support from family, friends, and colleagues.  Their father, Bishop Milton Wright, was a preacher with the United Brethren Church in Christ which advocated the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.  His grandfather Dan Wright was a veteran of the American Revolution.  Their mother, Susan Koerner Wright, shared her mechanical aptitude with her sons.  Both parents believed in the educational value of toys and lifelong learning.

Katharine Wright in 1909

Katharine Wright in 1909

The greatest thing in our favor was
growing up in a family where
there was always much encouragement
to intellectual curiosity.
– Orville Wright, The Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright were self-educated.  Their college-educated sister Katharine was a teacher, and she was essential to their success.  Carrie Grumbach became the family housekeeper after Mrs. Wright died in 1889.  The brothers never married, and Katharine became estranged from Orville after she had the audacity to marry Henry J. Haskell very late in life.

Wright Brothers in 1910

Wright Brothers in 1910

The best dividends on the labor invested
have invariably come from seeking more knowledge
rather than more power.
– Wilbur and Orville Wright, March 12, 1906

Their first invention was the Van Cleve bicycle. It was named for their paternal great-great-grandmother, who was the first white woman to settle in Dayton, Ohio.  The business was quite successful and funded the brother’s fascination with flight.

The Tate family in Kitty Hawk was essential for the brothers’ survival as well as ability to make the flight that made history.  Charles Taylor, a mechanic at their bicycle shop, kept the business going while the brothers were in North Carolina and built their first airplane engine.

Wright Brothers on a rare flight together

Wright Brothers on a rare flight together

All the money anyone needs is just enough
to prevent one from being
a burden to others.
– Bishop Milton Wright, The Wright Brothers

I was fascinated by how quickly airplane design evolved after the first successful flight.  It started with a small, toy helicopter which Bishop Wright brought home from France and evolved into the study of birds and kites in flight.  The brothers were quite resourceful in ferreting out research which they discovered was flawed.  Kites morphed into gliders.  A crude motor was added and refined.  They took hundreds of photos to document their progress.

They found strategic partners in Europe like Léon Bollée and engaged in on-going respectful dialogue to assess and evaluate ideas.  They were highly protective of their intellectual property and patents.  They understood the importance of public relations.  They worked six days a week with diligence that impressed everyone.

WrightBros Book

No bird soars in a calm.
Wilbur Wright, The Wright Brothers

The brothers, who were lifelong partners, taught themselves and others how to fly.  Both crashed, and they rarely flew together so that the surviving brother could carry on in the event of a fatal crash.

When Wilbur died in 1912 at age 46, he left an estate of $276,000. Orville’s estate when he passed away in 1948 was $1,067,105 (over $10 million in today’s dollars).

The book is a fascinating glimpse into the heady spirit of innovation during the early 20th century, the evolution of the aviation industry, and the inventors who created new paradigms.  It is a poignant reminder that we need the support of family, friends, and colleagues to succeed.  The Wright brothers were blessed to have parents who instilled them with self-confidence, a thirst for learning and experimenting, and a solid foundation for life.

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