Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wright brothers soar in our imaginations -- May 21, 2015 column


Perhaps no Memorial Day has been as quietly momentous as May 30, 1899.

One hundred and 16 years ago, on what was then called Decoration Day, Wilbur Wright, 32, of Dayton, Ohio, sat down and wrote a letter by hand that literally changed the course of history.

He asked the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for all the papers the Smithsonian had published on aviation and a list of other works in English on the subject. He intended, he said, to devote whatever time he could spare from his bicycle shop to the systematic study of human flight.

Aware that his plan would seem far-fetched, since most people believed man wasn’t meant to fly and it was folly to try, Wright wrote:

“I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”

Amazingly, the Smithsonian responded and sent pamphlets and a list. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville began their studies.

They worked tirelessly -- from studying birds in flight to conquering the technical and mechanical challenges of building a flyer. Four and a half years later, on a sandy beach in North Carolina the brothers piloted the first sustained flights of a heavier-than-air machine.

Who the brothers were, how it all happened and what came next make the compelling story biographer David McCullough tells in “The Wright Brothers.” The book debuts at No. 1 in both the print and e-book nonfiction and hardback nonfiction categories in the May 24 New York Times Book Review.

We may not agree on much in this cantankerous country, but I’ll hazard a guess on one thing: Everybody loves a story of the American dream. It’s hard to resist a tale of American ingenuity, hard work, courage and perseverance, especially when it ends in unequivocal success.

The Wrights surmounted so many obstacles on their path that their triumph seems made for TV.  Indeed, Tom Hanks scooped up the rights for an HBO miniseries even before the book was released May 5.

That a man could take to the air like a bird was such an absurd notion that many considered the Wrights odd. The brothers were inseparable and never married. They shared the family house, cooking duties and a bank account.

They had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own,” McCullough writes.

Yet they never gave up.

They persisted despite the difficulty in shipping their flying machines in parts to the remote Outer Banks coast and in combating relentless swarms of mosquitoes, unpredictable weather and the occasional lack of wind. 

They persevered despite the real possibility that they would die trying, as had other aviator pioneers. Orville nearly did die in a crash that took the life of his passenger, the first death in aviation history.

What they did have was a dream coupled with energy, courage and the spark of genius. They worked six days a week.  Neither they nor their father, a traveling preacher, had a high school diploma, but their father had a substantial library. The boys and their sister Katharine read voraciously on all subjects.

They also pondered, thought through problems, and when they failed experimented some more. And they wrote things out. By hand. And here’s another thing that distinguishes the Wrights:  

“Seldom ever did any one of the Wrights – father, sons, daughter – put anything down on paper that was dull or pointless or poorly expressed,” McCullough says.

When the brothers made their first successful flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903, no reporters were there. A “ludicrously inaccurate” news story “concocted” by the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk ran in  several newspapers around the country, McCullough writes.

A sampling of the news coverage on the Library of Congress’ site includes the story in the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, on page 5, headlined “A Machine That Flies.”   

When the world finally took notice, the Wright brothers became larger than life, first in France and Europe, then in the United States. By all accounts, the celebrities never let wealth and fame go to their heads.

They grasped as inspiration the idea that man could soar with the birds and applied dogged determination until it happened.

This summer, the heroic Wright brothers are again lifting Americans’ spirits.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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