David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers: The Astonishing Story Worth Retelling and Reading


First, your correspondent recommends David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers. It tells the story of the two men, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who have become historical figures whose names are better known than the facts of how they came about to achieve the first ever powered human flight. But secondly, in telling their story, McCullough reminds us that ours is not the only, the first or perhaps even the greatest period of profound and rapid change.

Every period of time is, not surprisingly, most pre-occupied with its concerns and achievements; so too are we. Yet in reading the simple facts and chronology of what the Wright brothers did and how they went about their work provides a great level-setting of understanding that helps to rescue their accomplishments from cliche and hazy folklore and provides a reassuring example of intelligence and industry that is both inspiring and instructive to our present-day labors and issues.

Some vignettes:

How, in confronting the inadequacy of existing aerodynamic theories, data and calculations, the brothers built themselves a small-scale wind tunnel, a wooden box 6 feet long and 16 inches square, installed a noisy gas engine to power a fan, and went about making tiny wings out of used hacksaw blades of different sizes, thicknesses and curvatures, strung them on bicycle spoke wires and patiently built their own data for wing foil technology…

How, in determining where to locate their test facility, Wilbur, like any good process professional, requested extensive wind data from the U.S. Weather Bureau and analyzed the monthly wind velocities from more than 100 weather stations in order to select Kitty Hawk, a remote spot on the Outer Banks of North Carolina…

How, in needing an engine to power their aircraft, they pressed into service their brilliant bicycle mechanic, Charlie Taylor to build a small, light gas engine of a kind never before seen and how he responded by making, a 152 pound engine that was 25% lighter than the brother’s specifications using as his basis a block of a newly commercialized alloy called aluminum and making, by hand, the cast iron cylinders and piston rings using nothing but the tools he had on hand to make bicycles, and doing all of this in just 6 weeks…

How, in finding out that there was no existing data on how propellers actually work, either in the water or in the air, they simply went ahead to solve the mathematical problem of calculating the action of a surface moving in a spiral through moving air and how, in reaching the limits of what they could calculate due to the increasingly complex interactions, they decided to employ a “lean,” “agile” technique to test their estimates in actual flight and adjust, a tactic we today think of as a thoroughly modern approach but which they simply adopted as a matter of course…

Today, we marvel at the rate of progress of our gadgets and our digital society, but it is a bracing tonic to our self-absorption that we read about how within 4 weeks of their inaugural public flight demonstration on August 8, 1908, at Le Mans France, the brothers were making flights of an hour and ten minutes and within only 4 months they had pushed flight endurance to 2 hours and 20 minutes. Within just 12 months of Wilbur’s first flights at Le Mans there was an international air race titled “La Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne” in Reims, France at which 22 different types of aircraft were flown in front of grandstands holding 200,000 people.

We speak of the rate of technological advancement but ours was not the first society to witness rapid change. Arguably, in many ways, the rate and extent of change in politics, business, and culture the world of 1908 experienced was relatively more profound than anything we have experienced. Sometimes in our zeal for “innovation” and “transformative change” we adopt futuristic mindsets; the story, the “case example” if you will, of the Wright brothers and powered human flight is worth studying as much as anything on the altar of Silicon Valley.


One Comment on “David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers: The Astonishing Story Worth Retelling and Reading”

  1. […] Wright Brothers (2015). David McCullough. I reviewed this book in an earlier post and it remains a great example of how business people often suffer from amnesia. To hear it, today […]

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