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David McCullough Talks the Wright Brothers

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Explains Birth of the Airplane


Air travel in the 21st century is a mode of transportation taken for granted, but not that long ago the idea of seeing a machine soar through the skies elicited disbelief and then worldwide excitement, thanks to Wilbur and Orville Wright. Despite the fact that they solved one of the most phenomenal engineering puzzles of humankind and changed the world forever, most know little about the brothers from Dayton, Ohio. However, thanks to Pulitzer Prize–winning author David McCullough’s latest book The Wright Brothers, their lives in the shadows of history has been brought to full light. The tome is a brilliant page-turner that reveals the breadth of what Wilbur and Orville truly accomplished and reveals the exceptional human beings they were.

From Dayton to Kitty Hawk to Les Mans to Washington, D.C., McCullough takes readers on an adventure that chronicles the successes and failures the Wrights faced over the nearly 10 years it took them to complete their invention (deemed The Flyer) and master the art of aviation. We are also introduced to the other players in the brothers’ lives — namely their sister Katherine and their father — whom without they likely wouldn’t have been able to bring their vision to fruition. In anticipation of his visit, I spoke with McCullough about the brothers and their impact on the modern world.

Hi, is this David McCullough? Yes, It is. I’m glad to hear from you, I was looking forward to talking to you.

Oh, good! I’ve been looking forward to talking with you, too. Your book about the Wright Brothers was so fascinating. Thank you.

I have to admit that before I read your book I knew very little about the Wright brothers. [Chuckles]

What got you started on this book, an interest in flying? I loved to make model airplanes when I was a young boy and I took flying lessons later on; I would have continued if they weren’t so expensive. But I have to say in all candor that I knew very little about them. I knew they were from Ohio, I knew they were bicycles mechanics, and I knew they invented the airplane. But I really didn’t know anything beyond that of any substance, and it was while I was working on my previous book [Greater Journey], about the Americans who went to Paris in the 19th century to perfect their skills in their chosen fields of architecture and painting and sculpture and medicine, that I ran into the Wright brothers, quite by surprise.

Gertrude Stein had a similar experience — I’ve just learned that; I didn’t know it before I was writing the book. But she saw a statue of Wilbur Wright at Le Mans, in France, and felt that he had never been there. Well, I had much the same feeling —“What are these Wright brothers doing in France?” And of course I soon found out. It was when I began to read about them, and, even more importantly, what they themselves wrote in their letters to their father and sister and others, that I came to appreciate what extraordinary human beings they were.

Once I got into their lives and into all that they went through and the truly admirable human qualities that they personified, I would have wanted to write the book even if they hadn’t succeeded in inventing the flying machine. One of the basic things that I did not understand at the beginning [of my research] — and most people today know nothing about them except for the 10 minutes we all got in high school history class — [was] that they didn’t just invent the plane, they invented how to fly the plane. They were the first test pilots, and there is where so much of their courage, their perseverance, their determination to succeed is put to the test. And people like Samuel [Pierpont] Langley and Octave Chanute, they would never have gone up in anything they devised to solve the problem. And, of course, the only other one they’d read about who did, Otto Lilienthal, was killed! So, any time either of these two went up in a plane, he knew perfectly well he had a very good chance of being killed. But yet they kept going, and they weren’t daredevils, they weren’t show-offs.

That’s probably what helped, that they were consistent, they didn’t take risks — well, they took risks, they went up in a plane. Right, they were so careful about everything. And I have to say, though, I don’t go so far as to make this point in what I’ve written, I think Wilbur might have been right when he felt that if he’d been at Fort Myer on the day [March 17, 1908] that Orville flew his fatal, for Selfridge, crash it might not have happened. Because [Wilbur] was so careful, so thorough in his preliminary checking of every single aspect of the machinery.

They were a funny bunch, those three — Katharine, Wilbur, and Orville. I mean, just living together and never marrying—well, till Katharine was much older. It was an interesting dynamic and yet they didn’t seem particularly weird. Well, I think they, very much the way some people enter the priesthood or become nuns —they put that aside as less important than what they wanted to accomplish.

Well, thank heavens, huh? Oh, I should say so.

I think it’s interesting that Charles Lindbergh has gotten so much attention, but there doesn’t seem much about the Wright brothers, and yet they invented the plane! Well, there have been some very worthy books, one by Tom Crouch, who’s the aeronautical expert at the Smithsonian. He wrote a big thick biography called The Bishop’s Boys [A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright]. And he’s written other books. But they are mostly — and I don’t say this in a derogatory way —they are mostly aeronautical books.

Not very accessible to the average reader And that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I wanted to know these people, find out about these people, as people. And I was so struck again and again by how many life lessons that they can teach all of us. Modesty — remember modesty? How that used to be thought of as a virtue?

They’re my new heroes. Yeah, me too. One of the pleasures of the book for me was giving credit where credit was due — to Katharine.

That was great to learn about her. Most people don’t even know her name, I’m sure, or that they had any siblings. Oh, no, of course not. And their father. I was asked recently at some event if I had a chance to talk to one of the four, Katharine, Wilbur, and Orville, [or the father] which one would I pick. I said I’d pick the father, because I think he understood them better than anybody. And of course he has to be credited for the way they were brought up. I came away from the years I’ve spent on this book feeling that we appreciate but we don’t know enough about how important the way we’re brought up at home is to the way we turn out to be. Yes, school is very important, and college, higher education of all kinds, but it’s those basic values that you acquire at home from the time you’re able to walk until you’re about 8 or 9 years old, or less, that very often stays with you the entire time you’re on Earth and we need to know more about that, I think.

The Wrights were so delightful and I loved how they continually supported one another and that their characters were continually refueled. Yes, there was no out-growing that kind of thing. Going back to where we started our conversation about how much you and I and many others don’t know about them, I think that part of the misconception comes with the sort of gut reaction that all of us have — that they didn’t go to college and they didn’t even finish high school. How can we think of them seriously as being in any way remarkable intellectually, or nimble of mind and imagination? But I think their education at home was better than the much of what passes for education today! There’s a big message in this: These two who cracked the most difficult, seemingly impossible, technological problem of all time, had only a liberal arts education — at home! [All they had] were those books that were in the bookcase in their little house in the back streets of Dayton, Ohio. That’s it, that’s the whole shebang! And they read them…and their father stressing always that they read a little above their heads and his emphasis on the use of the English language. Their letters are phenomenal. They’re not just grammatically correct, and impressive vocabulary, but they’re very effective and very expressive of ambition, emotion, disappointment, homesickness, humor. And none of them was capable of writing a short letter. Or a boring letter.

I felt that I got a real taste of the Wright’s life thanks to all the letters quoted and the wonderful photos. I felt part of the equation, rather than just being told the story. Well, they not only wrote everything, they photographed damn near everything, except themselves.

I wonder why they photographed everything? Oh, it’s a record of their progress, and to protect themselves against patent suits.

They were so forward thinking. They were business minded and physics minded and mechanically minded. And I also loved the way their father — and the whole family — treated Katharine like an equal. Oh, absolutely.

At home she was equal, but in society she didn’t even have the right to vote! I know. The idea of their old father is out there marching in a suffrage parade. I just thought it was perfect.

He was way ahead of his time. Yeah. And they depended on [Katherine]. She was always there when needed, and she went to college. Which none of the others did, including their father.

They set a lot of precedents, their family was unique in not only inventing the airplane but in women’s liberation and other social movements. But maybe that’s what you’d have to be, to have your mind capable of making an airplane. That’s right.

I was very sad at the end when they died. Oh, me too.

And Wilbur died so young of typhoid fever! Such a terrible, unnecessary waste.

And then Katharine passed away, and then poor Orville was on his own for such a long time. Yes, indeed. Well, we all know 1903, when they made their first flights, was a long time ago. Over a 100 years. And yet, that isn’t very long, as history goes. And then you stop to think that Orville lived till 1948 and as I tell people, I could have known him! I was 15 in 1948, and if I had grown up in that same neighborhood in Dayton, he would have been that nice old gentleman around the corner who always said “Good morning” when he was out for a walk. It’s utterly amazing. And yet the whole world has changed in that time because of what they did.

I was thinking about when they were showing the world their first flights in their Flyer, about 1910, 1911. Then only a handful of years later World War I broke out. WWI was two years after Wilbur died. He never imagined that happening. Neither of them did.

It’s amazing the destruction airplanes were able to inflict during the war when they’d only recently been invented. The exponential advance of airplanes from 1912 until the war was phenomenal. Well, one of the great myths about all this is that because [the Wright’s] insisted on patents for what they had invented, that they held back the advance of aviation. Absolute nonsense.

Why did people say that? I don’t know. Any more than Edison’s patents held back the use of the light bulb. Or Alexander Graham Bell’s patents held back the telephone.

And so what if it did. If it did, it was for a couple of months. There was too much momentum, too much excitement about it — particularly in France. And everybody caught on right away, as was expected. Because what they had done wasn’t very complicated — if you knew how to do it.

After reading this book I felt a bit melancholy, wishing for a time when there was the opportunity and thrill of seeing something that you couldn’t imagine. I guess it was like that when people landed on the moon, but I missed that one, too. So really I’ve never really seen anything exceptional. Maybe the Internet, but that’s not the same thing as when you gather together as a community to witness something miraculous. No, it’s not, because it’s often done by committees and groups and while we may know about Steve Jobs or these other people, what they did was of no [physical] risk. I guess you could say the risk of their reputation or financial risk. But that’s not risk like [Orville and Wilbur] took. I think these periods in history come and go, and who can explain why the Renaissance happened when and where it did, or some of these other phenomenal times when so much creative energy came to the fore. I hope that in my book, I adequately give credit to the excitement of Dayton, Ohio. It wasn’t a remote, sort of quaintly middle-west behind-the-times town at all. It was kind of the Silicon Valley of the manufacturing innovations of the day. There were more patents issued in Dayton, Ohio, on a per capita basis than any city in the country. That was an exciting place for them to have been. It was anything but a disadvantage — it was a huge advantage.

I wish I could have been part of that crowd that went to the field and waited for the brothers to fly their invention. Oh, boy! Me too! The day they all flew. Just wonderful.

I feel like I won’t be wowed by anything. Someone goes to Mars, oh well. I can imagine that. Build a city under the sea—oh yeah, that makes sense. Where the book really ends is when the father goes up with Orville. He says “Higher, higher, Orville, higher!” I mean, you couldn’t find a line in a movie better than that!

Speaking of altitude, I couldn’t believe how high they flew! A thousand feet? That’s incredibly high. And they were sitting on top of the plane, they weren’t tucked inside a little cockpit Right. And they also had this idea they had to stay within the confines of their cow pasture there. They couldn’t fly wider, outside the fence line.

Why was that? Because if they came down, it was just somebody’s property. They didn’t have permission to fly over it.

That was thoughtful of them. So they did 80 plus loops around a cow pasture. That’s right.

What are you going to talk about when you come to Santa Barbara? I’m going to talk about what the process was in [writing the book], what I learned, and what I think are lessons we can all take from their example. And one of the points that I’d like very much to make is that we should never think that history is almost entirely about politics and war. Yes, politics and war are very important, but they’re not the whole story by any means. And the idea that we know so little about these two Americans who did so much to change not only our way of life but the way of life of everybody the world over. Yet we’ll spend hours in some class, school or college, learning about people who really weren’t all that important, in the long run.

I think you’ve made a good career of highlighting people and events in history that haven’t always gotten their just do. Your book The Johnstown Flood, for example, was amazing. Well, I see this book as a third book in a trilogy, beginning with my book on the Brooklyn bridge [The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.] All of which happened in the same, relatively brief section of time, between the Civil War and WWI. And all of which were thought to have been impossible, and all of which involved great danger and potential loss of life, and all of which those who undertook it, the Americans who undertook it, succeed. And it changed our country, changed the world.

I’m surprised those books haven’t been made into movies. Well, this one is going to be. And there’s a Broadway musical in the works about the Great Bridge.

No kidding! Oh, I’m glad to hear that. Do you get to oversee them at all? Well, I agreed to go along with these things only if I can have some say, and so far they seem to be willing.

The Johnstown Flood was such a gripping book. I mean it’s like a thriller! [Chuckles] Yes it is. Thank you. Well, there’s serious talk about that, too.

Well, I’m a huge fan, obviously. I was a history major, so I’ve always enjoyed your work. I’ve never understood people who think history is boring and stupid. That’s why you’re work is so important —you make it accessible for the masses, who then get to see how fascinating and thrilling history is. Well, thank you. It’s a great compliment and I appreciate it.

411: UCSB Arts & Lectures presents David McCullough Thursday, October 1, 8 p.m. at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.

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