Let’s all go to Mars

John Lanchester in the London Review of Books:

MTI5ODczMTcyMzUzODI4ODc0Some stories are so well known in outline that we don’t really know them at all. The headline news about the Wright brothers’ invention of powered flight is so familiar that it’s easy to think we know all about it. David McCullough’s excellent biography The Wright Brothers brings the story back to life with facts that the non-specialist either doesn’t know or has blotted out with a misplaced broad brush. Yeah yeah, we get it: the brothers were provincial tinkerers who first flew their invention at Kitty Hawk, then became world-famous. It turns out, though, that there is a lot of devil in the details.

The tinkering, for instance. The Wrights were pioneers in the cycling business who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur was born in 1867 and Orville in 1871. They were an unusually close pair who all their lives lived together, worked together, ate together and shared a joint bank account. (McCullough is too respectful of their boundaries to say so, but it seems likely that they were both lifelong virgins.) One of the only things they didn’t do together was fly: that would have been too much of a risk to the irreplaceable knowledge they’d jointly accumulated. Their father, Milton, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church who accepted his sons’ lack of faith with equanimity, and was going on suffragettes’ marches with his only daughter, Katherine, in his eighties. Katherine, a teacher, was the only family member to go to university, and the only sibling to have consummated a relationship, marrying at the age of 52.

‘It isn’t true,’ Wilbur later wrote, ‘to say we had no special advantages … the greatest thing in our favour was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.’ Wilbur’s interest in flight began in childhood; it turned into an obsession and then into a practical plan. Other pioneers of flight were focused on the question of power. The Wrights were fascinated by birds, and learned a lot from their study of them. One of Wilbur’s crucial insights was that flying, like cycling, was a question of balance. He saw that bird flight was all about equilibrium: about the bird’s keeping itself in the air with the maximum efficiency and minimum effort.

More here.