Posted by: philipfontana | July 29, 2015

D. McCullough, Bk #10



David McCullough:

The Wright Brothers


         “One of our Nation’s most distinguished & honored historians, David McCullough has taken his own place in American history…The United States honors David McCullough for his lifelong efforts to document the people, places, & events that have shaped America.” – – From The Presidential Medal of Freedom Citation, December 2006




     “Excuse Us For Living” has twice before taken on David McCullough’s nine books:

[To see those posts, click in the right margin here, at the bottom, “Book Reviews,” where you can click, “D. McCullough,” twice for Bks #1-5 & #6-9.]

And so, it is more than fitting, more like “a must,” that the author’s tenth book, The Wright Brothers, published this spring 2015, be addressed. More than reviews of each book, I’ve tried to convey the experience of reading David McCullough’s works. The best word I can choose to describe that experience is “captivating.” At this writing, The Wright Brothers has been the # 1 Best Seller for 10 weeks and going on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

With his first three books, I found myself aggravated either by his choice of subject or by the length and detail of his tomes. But by his fourth book, I learned that this master storyteller of America’s history knew best, knew what stories to tell and how to tell them. Apparently I was not alone. David McCullough twice received the Pulitzer Prize, twice the National Book Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


         Pictured on the cover of the book, the first successful flight of a flying machine with a motor. It was a winter day, December 17, 1903. The place was Kitty Hawk, on a remote island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They called their machine “the Flyer.” Orville is pictured “belly down” at the controls as Wilbur looks on to the right. The distance flown was 120 feet. The total time airborne was all of 12 seconds!



     In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough’s words read more like a novel than a history book. He tells a charming story about an amazing family obsession to build a flying machine. Orville and Wilbur, assisted by sister Katharine, were three of five children of an itinerant Bishop, Milton Wright, of the United Brethren Church, a Protestant denomination. The family household was an unusual mix of conservative rectitude and liberal, well-read thinking. Home was Dayton, Ohio, which curiously, at the turn of the century (1900), was number one, relative to population, for inventions/patents in the U.S. Patent Office. Thus, Dayton could boast of its large number of factories and mills and their long list of products. Orville and Wilbur’s contribution to Dayton was first a print shop and newspaper followed by a bicycle shop. It was from there that the brothers built and went out to experiment with what became their flying machine. In the shop they were assisted by Charlie Taylor who held down the fort during their numerous absences out flying. And it was Charlie who single-handedly built and improved upon the motor for their flying machine.


         Wilbur Wright, on the left, & Orville Wright, on the right, 1909, seated side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street, a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur was 42 here & Orville 38. Wilbur, lost in his serious looking, genius thoughts, is dressed in his usual plain dark suit & high-laced shoes. Orville, the mechanic of the two, is in a lighter-toned, better tailored suit, with snappy argyle socks, & wing tip shoes.




     The story of Wilbur and Orville Wright is one of hard work and determination, knowing that was the only road to the development of a successful flying machine and that only then would recognition be theirs. The author details their competition, mainly in this country and in France. There would be triumphs with each new record set and failures with disastrous crashes, none so serious to bodily harm, with one big exception, and always rebuilding a new and better Flyer. Of major consequence was a letter from Wilbur in 1899 to The Smithsonian Institution requesting any papers the Smithsonian had published on the subject of aeronautics. Not only did the Smithsonian provide a list of books but a generous amount of pamphlets on aviation which launched the brothers’ study in earnest. Another leap forward came from their 1901 wooden box experiments in a wind tunnel, 6 feet by 16 inches square, in an upstairs room in the bicycle shop. Here they came up with the proper wing surface for “lift” and “drag.”

The pursuit of their dream began in 1900 at Kitty Hawk, a small settlement of 50 houses or so, on a remote island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They were drawn there through no small sacrifice getting out to the island all the way from Dayton, Ohio. They gradually built crude, makeshift accommodations. Kitty Hawk was the suggestion of an eminent engineer, Octave Chanute, no stranger to those working on development of the airplane. Not only was he a builder of bridges and railroads but prominent in the field of building gliders. At Kitty Hawk, said Chanute, they would find the conditions they sought; consistent winds to carry the craft and soft, sand hills on which to land. They would stay as much as 10 weeks at a time and would do so five trips over nine years from 1900 to 1908. Of their most renowned trips at Kitty Hawk was the most significant in 1903 with “Flyer I,” the first flying machine with a motor, as opposed to gliders, a “miraculous” distance all of 120 feet and in a “grand” 12 seconds! And finally in 1908 at Kitty Hawk, now confident to invite the press, the Wright brothers invited reporters who were stunned to witness two flights of 1000 and 2000 feet! And so the first news photograph of a flight was taken as proof of Wilbur & Orville’s feat!


         The Wright Brothers confer beside their 1904 airplane at their cow-pasture testing ground, Huffman Prairie, outside Dayton. That’s Orville, left, & Wilbur, right.




     The reader will be surprised that Kitty Hawk was far from the entire saga of the Wright Brothers. There is far more to tell and David McCullough does not disappoint, despite the brevity of the book. He takes the reader through a series of locations, airplanes Flyer II and III, flight demonstrations into the hundreds, records set and broken, mishaps, rebuilding flyers. – -From Huffman Prairie outside Dayton, Ohio, to France, Berlin, Rome, to Fort Meyers, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. – -Some long sojourns of many months. – -Spectators by the thousands eventually! – -Dinners and honors bestowed! – -Negotiations for contracts. – -A serious crash that almost kills Orville, but to fly again! And then that return home to Dayton, with a two day homecoming celebration the likes of which defy description except by David McCullough!


       October 4, 1909, Wilbur beats Glenn Curtiss to be the first to fly from Governor’s Island, New York City, up the Hudson River and circle the Statue of Liberty and back. The occasion was the 300th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration & the 100th Anniversary of Fulton’s steamboat. Over one million people watched along with almost 1600 vessels including the Lusitania! Wilbur had to hug the New Jersey shoreline due to the winds off the New York skyscrapers causing a drop in elevation.




And there is more, much more, far too much to relate here. Their 1903 patent application is finally granted in 1906. Orville and Wilbur do get a contract with the War Department in 1909. They are embroiled in litigation with Glenn Curtiss, a competing flyer, over violation of the Wright patent. Orville returns to Europe later in 1909 to compete with Curtiss for flying records in Berlin. Curtiss wins for speed. Orville gets a new world record of 1 hour 35 minutes for a flight with a passenger. Wilbur makes the first air flight in New York City, 1909, up the Hudson River from Governor’s Island to the Statue of Liberty and back. But the most telling event occurs on Wednesday, May 25, 1910, Huffman Prairie field. Orville and Wilbur fly together for the very first time! Air flight is now predictably safe enough to risk both brothers not being killed in order to continue their experimental flights.

This time around, David McCullough tells his tale in less than three-hundred pages. – – More brevity than many of his other works clocking in at double the pages. He ends his story accounting for Wilbur’s death in 1912 at age 45 of typhoid fever and Orville’s longevity of 67 years, ending with a heart attack in 1948. But David McCullough does not stop there, as if to tell us why he has written this story, adding the last sentence of the book:

“On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer.”

Excuse us for living as we wait and pray that David McCullough be blessed with the years to choose another subject and write a book # 11.

     Comments: Please!


  1. Thank you for sharing with us this amazing post!

    • Wilson, Thank you! How nice that you are the first to comment here!!! Phil

      Wilson, Thank you for looking around my website! Phil

      • Wow! Your blog has beautiful posts, I can’t wait to appreciate you. Thanks!

  2. Hi Phil;
    Your article on McCullough’s book was fascinating! Thx for posting your ” thoughts!”
    I have been to Greenfield Village here in Michigan where the Wright Brothers bicycle shop was purchased by Henry Ford and placed in the Village. It was so interesting to see this place!

    But getting back to your review- I loved it- maybe I will read it someday when it is in paperback- or suggest it to my book club!

    I would LOVE. To go to the Outer Banks and visit the place where the first flight took place-

    Thx again Phil- hope to see you and Geri in Sept!

    • Marg, Yes! David McCullough mentions it in his book that Henry Ford included the bicycle shop in Greenfield Village!!! Glad you remember it! I’ve been there but don’t recall seeing the shop. Hope you get to read the book…That would really be something if your book club reads it! There’s a museum down there at or near Kitty Hawk. You will LOVE reading about Wilbur & Orville’s exploits there! Just getting out to the island, Wilbur went first alone with someone who had a boat & came close to being drowned. And there were no accommodations….all makeshift! Thanks again, my #1 commentor by just a comment or two! GREAT!!!! SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER!!! Phil

      • hey Phil-
        I have looked at a map of the outer banks, and for someone today to travel there today, well let’s just say it isn’t easy! I admire the Wright brosthers fortitude in getting there…I saw the picture of you sitting on the beach reading that book, with a cigar in hand… picture! lol….

  3. Marg, That’s why the museum must be elsewhere in NC. And the Wright brothers went there 5 times, 1900-1908! Thanks! That’s my annual beach read photo….Geri has one too but doesn’t push the book bragging! Phil

    • bwahahaha! that is too funny Phil!

  4. Just put this on my to read list! I really enjoyed his 1776 (both the book and audio book-he narrated it)! Great post!

    • Eddie! Much thanks! Yes, “1776” was another good one by McC. I loved all 10 of his books. Try to read my other two posts covering the other 9 of his books!!!!! The posts are under Book Reviews , bottom, right margin. Appreciate you liking this post & book!!!! Phil

      • I sure will my friend! Looking for them now! 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Just Us Owls and commented:
    A great review of a great historian’s book. Check it out and give my good friend Phil a comment or two!

    • Eddie, Wow!!!!!!!!!! HA!!! I’ll be right there! THANK YOU!!! Phil

  6. Phil, this is a fascinating post on THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough.
    Where have you been? Have I just missed your blog lately, or did you take a break?

    • Michelle, Thank you so much! I am posting now every other month … this is my 4th post of the year! Check the right margin of my archives for these latest & go down passed the dates to the topics at the bottom for more fun!!! Thanks! Phil

  7. Both information and photos that are new to me – I learn something everyday. Thanks, Phil for the outstanding job here!!

    • GP, Well thanks for that substantive comment about content, GP. As with all you post, so much past history to learn about!!! I’m proud that you & I care about our American story!!! Thanks, GP! Phil

  8. Thank you so much for sharing the review and interesting history of the Wright’s brothers. Impressive reads, it must be, I always like history book that written in novel way – so it is less boring. I will take a look of David McCullough’s books 🙂

    • Indah!!! Glad you enjoyed the story of the Wright brothers!!! Yes, history told as a story like a novel is fascinating! To read about David McCullough’s other 9 books, just go to the right margin here to the bottom & click Book Reviews. There you will see Books #1-5 & #6-9 that I wrote about!!! Good! Take a look! Thanks, Indah!!!

  9. Reblogged this on ' Ace History News ' .

    • Ace History News! What an honor to be reblogged by you!!!! I am humbled. Phil

      • Great posts need sharing it is my honour to share great writers and posts. Ian 😀

  10. I understand they were not friendly with Glen Curtiss and for very good reason. Curtiss apparently was quite the tech/idea their but he did have vision and financing.

    • Carl, You are right on with the facts as told in the book. But they do meet with him & his fellow thieves like Thomas Edison (!) & are aware that they are taking in all they see in the bicycle shop re the Flyer. He was a respected competitor & as I mention in my post competed for records with Orville in Berlin, 1909. What I left out was that when Wilbur flew the Hudson River, NYC, 1909, from Governor’s Island & up to the Statue of Liberty & back, Curtiss was there to compete to do the same…..but winds delayed both Wilbur * Curtiss until Curtiss never flies/tries due to an appointment in St. Louis or somewhere!!! I would like to research how the company Curtiss-Wright comes about since in McCullough’s book the Wrights are suing Curtiss for patent infringement & win! Phil

  11. ooops. their was supposed to read thief

  12. My father was a landing gear mechanic for Eastern Air Lines in Miami. Eddie Rickenbacker used to come through the shop all the time to chat with the fellows. Dad worked on his car and his plane.

    • Carl, Your Dad was probably an unsung hero there with Eastern Airlines…..Eddie Rickenbacker! And working on his car & plane! That IS something to remember!!! Last I knew you moved to NC with your Dad in his 90’s???!!! Hope he is doing OK. Forgive me if I am mistaken. My deceased Uncle John was the man in-charge of the parts counter & department for Lockheed out at JFK when it was Idlewild. There they serviced Air Force One!!! What stories he told me about Jackie Kennedy’s requests, LBJ’s requirements & demands on Air Force personnel, & then Nixon’s requirements!!! Phil

  13. I am reading THE WRIGHT BROTHERS for my book discussion group this month. Love his writing and especially the description. I especially loved the description of the Outer Banks. I have been going there to Nags Head since I was a little girl!

    • Annett, Nov 4 I attended a Forum at Drew University near here in NJ (where i earned my MA, political science) to hear David McCullough speak largely about his latest book on the Wright brothers. He also related it to his other books, particularly “Truman.” It’s a marvelous book for its history, story, geography as you mention, work ethic, & more. I’ve read all 10 of David McCullough’s books & I discuss all ten here on my website. Just go to the bottom of the right margin to Book Reviews & click it. There you will find three posts, his books #1-5, #6-9, & #10, “The Wright Brothers.” Hope you will enjoy that!!! Thanks for the nice comment! Phil

      • The joys of retirement! McCullough is amazing. How old is he?

  14. Annetbell, 82…. Born July 7, 1933 Phil

  15. It’s amazing the Wright brothers go off the ground in that thing! 😀

    • Kev, The Wright Brother’s whole story is amazing…… you say, that they got off the ground at all! I know you are busy…..if you can do a fast read & concentrate on the parts of their story that interest you, I think you will get a lot out of it. Many thanks! Phil

  16. Great reading your ppost

    • Shirley A, Thanks, Shirley! David McCullough wrote one more book not covered here before he died. Phil

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