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The Wright Brothers
Author: David McCullough


From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds. One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers—some to their deaths—in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. He felt predestined to study flight, he said, and related a childhood memory of a kite flying down onto his cradle.

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. “Look here, boys,” said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the “bat.”

Orville’s first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday.

Part I



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.



In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1909, the peak of their fame. Wilbur was forty-two, Orville thirty-eight. Wilbur, with a long poker face, looks off to one side, as though his mind were on other things, which most likely it was. He is lean, almost gaunt, long of nose and chin, clean-shaven, and bald. He wears a plain dark suit and high-laced shoes, much in the manner of their preacher father.

Orville gazes straight at the camera, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He is a bit stouter and younger-looking than his brother and has a touch more hair, in addition to a well-trimmed mustache. He wears a lighter-toned, noticeably better-tailored suit, snappy argyle socks, and wingtips. The argyles were about as far in the direction of frippery as any of the Wright men would ever go. Prominent, too, in the pose, appropriately, are the hands, the highly skilled hands that, by the time the picture was taken, had played a substantial part in bringing miraculous change to the world.

To judge by the expressions on their faces, they had little if any sense of humor, which was hardly the case. Neither liked having his picture taken. “Truth to tell,” one reporter wrote, “the camera is no friend either to the brothers.” But what is most uncharacteristic about the pose is that they sit doing nothing, something they almost never succumbed to.

As others in Dayton knew, the two were remarkably self-contained, ever industrious, and virtually inseparable. “Inseparable as twins,” their father would say, and “indispensable” to each other.

They lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even “thought together,” Wilbur said. Their eyes were the same gray-blue, though Orville’s were less predominant and closer together. Their handwriting was quite alike—consistently straight and legible—and their voices so alike that someone hearing them from another room had trouble knowing which was doing the talking.

If Orville was always noticeably better dressed, Wilbur, at five feet ten, stood an inch or so taller and as would be said more often in France than Dayton, women found him somewhat mysterious and quite attractive.

Both loved music—Wilbur played the harmonica, Orville, the mandolin. At work they sometimes found themselves spontaneously whistling or humming the same tune at the same time. Both were strongly attached to home. Both liked to cook. Biscuits and candy were Orville’s specialties. Wilbur took pride in his gravy, and for the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey insisted on taking charge of the stuffing.

Like the father and their sister Katharine, the brothers had tremendous energy, and working hard every day but Sunday was a way of life, and if not on the job then at home on “improvements.” Hard work was a conviction, and they were at their best and happiest working together on their own projects at the same waist-high bench, wearing shop aprons to protect their suits and ties.

Everything considered, they got along well, each aware of what the other brought to the task at hand, each long familiar with the other’s particular nature, and always with the unspoken understanding that Wilbur, the older by four years, was the senior member of the partnership, the big brother.

Not that things always went smoothly. They could be highly demanding and critical of each other, disagree to the point of shouting “something terrible.” At times, after an hour or more of heated argument, they would find themselves as far from agreement as when they started, except that each had changed to the other’s original position.

As often said, neither ever chose to be anything other than himself, a quality that rated high in Ohio. Not only did they have no yearning for the limelight, they did their best to avoid it. And with the onset of fame, both remained notably modest.

Yet in a number of ways they were unidentical twins. There were differences, some obvious, others less so. Where Orville moved at a more or less normal pace, Wilbur was “tremendously active of movement,” gesturing vigorously with his hands when making a point, walking always with a long, rapid stride. Wilbur was more serious by nature, more studious and reflective. His memory of what he had seen and heard, and so much that he read, was astonishing. “I have no memory at all,” Orville was frank to say, “but he never forgets anything.”

Such were Wilbur’s powers of concentration that to some he seemed a little strange. He could cut himself off from everyone. “The strongest impression one gets of Wilbur Wright,” an old schoolmate said, “is of a man who lives largely in a world of his own.” Morning after morning, lost in thought, he would hurry out the door without his hat, only to reappear five minutes later to retrieve it.

Wilbur also, it was agreed, had “unusual presence,” and remained imperturbable under almost any circumstance, “never rattled,” his father was proud to say. He was an exceptional public speaker and lucid writer, which seemed out of context for someone so often silent, and though reluctant to speak in public, when he did his remarks were invariably articulate, to the point, and quite often memorable. In his professional correspondence, the innumerable proposals and reports he wrote, and in private correspondence no less, his vocabulary and use of language were of the highest order, due in large measure to standards long insisted upon by his father. It had proven an ability of utmost importance to his and his brother’s unprecedented accomplishments.

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