‘The Wright Brothers,’ by David McCullough

Daniel Okrent in the New York Times:

10OKRENT2-blog427It’s been nearly half a century since David McCullough published “The Johns­town Flood,” which initiated his career as our matchless master of popular history. His 10th book, “The Wright Brothers,” has neither the heft of his earlier volumes nor, in its intense focus on a short period in its subjects’ lives, the grandness of vision that made those works as ambitious as they were compelling. Yet this is nonetheless unmistakably McCullough: a story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency.

It does not begin promisingly. The first 30 or so pages consist of a somewhat desultory recounting of early years in the Wright household. But then 32-year-old Wilbur writes a letter to the Smithsonian, requesting any papers they have, or know of, regarding human flight. “I am an enthusiast,” he assures whoever might open the letter, “but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”

Did he ever. There is no fortuity in the Wright brothers’ saga as related by McCullough, no unexpected events that changed their course. Except for Orville’s startling emergence from a horrible wreck during one of his flights, there’s not even any luck. Neither brother attended college, nor had been trained in physics or engineering, yet each step they took was not only correct but in many cases brilliant, and in nearly all cases original. That every one of those steps was also achieved through excruciating patience and obsessive attention to detail does not diminish the only word that can express what Wilbur, particularly, possessed: genius.

McCullough shows how endless calculation, application and recalculation led them to determine the proper shape of the wing, the means of manipulating its angle into the wind, how to compensate for the weight of the engine.

More here.