It took two years but I finally got around to reading David McCullough’s historic, “The Wright Brothers.”
I’d already feasted on other McCullough books, “Truman,” “1776” and “John Adams” – each, like this one, a page turner.
Flight has become so much a part of our lives that it’s almost impossible to realize that just a little more than 100 years ago, the idea of soaring in the sky was no more than a fantasy in the minds of, well, less-than-stable people.
One savant in Spain, writes McCullough, covered himself with feathers in 875 and made an attempt. Some attached wings and more often than not plunged to their deaths. Leonardo Da Vinci tried several times to fly like a kite, to no avail.
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The Wrights’ seemingly immortal feat began with a scientific study of birds. They became experts on the flying habits of birds and marveled at the ease with which they took off and landed and glided through the air, barely moving their wings.
Based on their studies, the brothers built an airplane in their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. In 1899, they transported it to Kitty Hawk, N.C., a site chosen for its reliable winds and its soft, sandy dunes – the better to prevent injuries during test flights.
There were hundreds of failures, but on December 17, 1903, Orville flew a distance of 852 feet in 59 seconds, the event captured in film and on the cover of McCullough’s book. Here is McCullough’s description of the moment:
“It had taken four years. They had endured violent storms, accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes.
“To get to and from their remote sand dune testing ground they had made five round-trips from Dayton, a total of 7,000 miles by train, all to fly little more than half a mile.
“No matter. They had done it.”
The wonders of their flight gained little notice, partly because few had witnessed it, partly because no one thought men would ever fly. Besides, neither Wilbur nor Orville were good at blowing their own horn.
Indeed, it may be one of the amazements of history that it took so long for the public – and particularly the U.S. government – to realize that two serious but unassuming bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, had mastered manned flight.
Not until 1905, when A.I. Root, the editor of something called “Gleanings in Bee Culture,” watched one of dozens of record-breaking practice flights on a pasture outside Dayton, did the Wrights’ miracle begin to take hold – as Root wrote in an article that had nothing to do with bees:
“God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat instrumental in ushering and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank electric cars, the automobile (and) may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy.”
The exuberant Root went on to envision a future “when we shall not need to fuss with good roads nor railway tracks, bridges, etc., at such enormous expense...God’s free air, that extends all over the earth, and perhaps miles above us, is our training field.”
After many more public demonstrations of manned flight, each one setting new records, a world full of skeptics finally began to recognize the miracle the Wright brothers had achieved on the windy, sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk. We are all the beneficiaries.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.