The sense of wonder and marvel that races through David McCullough’s latest book on the revolutionary achievements of two slightly odd, largely self-educated Dayton, Ohio, bicycle mechanics harkens back to many of the same qualities that elevated The Path Between the Seas, his epic National Book Award-winning history of the Panama Canal.
A similar sense of scale and scope also coursed through McCullough’s The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. In recent interviews, the historian has talked of viewing these three works — published over a 43-year span — as a “trilogy of accomplishment.”
The other common thread connecting The Wright Brothers to McCullough’s earlier works: The role that Paris has played in elevating exceptional Americans. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s first diplomatic successes were forged in France, and McCullough’s last book, The Great Journey, profiled an array of 19th century Yanks whose cultural feats in art, education, literature, music and scientific innovation were elevated by extended residencies in the City of Light.
In his latest book, McCullough vividly re-creates the failures and disappointments as the Wright brothers puzzle out the science of bird- and insect-wing design. Even after their triumphant breakthrough on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903, the American government and Smithsonian scientists largely ignored the Wrights. The brothers didn’t truly capture the imagination of the American press and public until they were lionized first by their pioneering French competitors at air shows underwritten by the champagne industry.
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Miami aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss makes a brief appearance as a contemporary and publicity-savvy competitor. Like the Wrights, who financed their flight experiments with the profits from their Ohio bike shop, Curtiss also started out as a bicycle mechanic in his native upstate New York before turning to the construction of racing motorcycles that could reach speeds up to 130 mph, earning the founding developer of Opa-locka and Miami Springs the title of “Fastest Man In the World.’’ By 1906, three years after Kitty Hawk, Curtiss had turned his attention to the skies and was working with Alexander Graham Bell and other partners on specialized, lightweight biplanes with high-powered engines.
McCullough captures the exponential explosion of public fascination with each rapid-fire advance in passenger flight technology. At the August 1908 air show at Le Mans, Wilbur stole the show in front of an audience of 150. There were no other participants. The next year, in Reims, more than 200,000 people overflowed a grandstand designed to hold 50,000 as 22 pilots participated. “The contestants flew higher, farther and faster than anyone ever had, breaking every record set by the Wright brothers in the past year,” McCullough notes, “and the biggest winner, and the most celebrated of the contestants, was Glenn Curtiss, who won the prize for speed.”
Orville represented the Wrights on that leg of the European tour followed by a fantastic flight up the Hudson River that riveted New Yorkers. All was not triumph and glory. A desultory Wilbur remained behind in Dayton, tending to unsavory business matters, including the filing of a patent-violations lawsuit against Curtiss and his partners.
While much of The Wright Brothers will be familiar to aviation history aficionados, McCullough has apparently unearthed one previously untold morsel from a seminal moment in Wilbur’s childhood. Teenage Wilbur abandoned dreams of attending college and became a bit of a recluse, after a well-documented hockey injury cost him several teeth and sent him spiraling into a deep depression. The more theoretical Wilbur, an avid reader, drew closer to his more mechanically capable younger brother Orville.
Together they worked on a printing press, and later the bicycle repair shop that would underwrite all of their future flight dreams. McCullough, while reading the diaries of the Wrights’ father, discovers that the stick-wielding goon was an infamous Dayton miscreant who was later executed for murdering his mother, father and brother.
McCullough, who will turn 82 in July, shows no signs of slippage. He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for 1992’s Truman and 2001’s John Adams, and one of the few historians to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There is a comfort in the consistency of his output, as he continues to deliver high-quality material with familiar facility and grace.
Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.