The Wright Brothers

Recently I finished David McCullough’s 2015 book The Wright Brothers — coincidentally completing it when I was 20,000 feet up in the air, flying from Austin to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and thereby owing a debt to Wilbur and Orville, the two brothers who solved the age-old puzzle of whether humans could fly.

As a native Ohioan, I’m ashamed to admit that while I knew that the Wright brothers were recognized as the inventors of the airplane, I actually knew very little about these two men from Dayton, or how they came to invent their “Flyer” that dazzled kings, prime ministers, Presidents, and ordinary people. McCullough’s book is a fascinating read that adroitly tells that story, focusing on the period when the brothers made their discoveries and inventions that changed the course of history. The book introduces us to these two brothers from an extraordinarily close-knit family who worked together for years, designed their own “safety bicycle,” which they called the “Van Cleve,” developed a successful bicycle business–and then became obsessed with solving the mystery of flight.

The context of their story is important, because the Wright brothers lived during an era when inventions were fundamentally transforming their world in countless ways–inventions like the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light, among many others. It was an era of great technological progress, when almost anything seemed possible. But human flight seemed to be the one step that could not be taken. In fact, some reputable publications flatly declared that human flight was impossible. The Wright brothers didn’t agree, and they put their noses to the grindstone and came up with the solution that now allows us to climb onto planes and cross hundreds of miles up in the air without giving it a second thought.

One theme of McCullough’s book is that the story of the Wright brothers is a story of the value of hard work, dedication, resolve, and focus. The brothers worked hard–six days a week, taking only Sunday off–and painstakingly addressed each problem presented and carefully overcame every obstacle. They talked for hours about the best way to design the wings, the rudder, and other parts of the plane, helping to spur their many innovations. They repeatedly put their lives on the line to test their invention. And each aspect of the Wright brothers’ Flyer–the wings and their design, the steering mechanism, the propellers, and the motor–had to be created and developed out of whole cloth. The Wright brothers’ story is the classic Horatio Alger tale in which the heroes achieve success through pluck, perseverance, and industriousness.

It was only a few short years between the Wright brothers’ first flight of their flyer, skimming above the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina–shown in the photograph above–and the development of a practical airplane that, as shown below, could soar above the harbor waves and circle the Statue of Liberty, astonishing the jaded citizenry of New York City. And once the Wright brothers solved the riddle, and not incidentally received patents for their inventions, everyone started building flying machines, and the modern air age began.

Wilbur Wright died young, succumbing to typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, but Orville Wright lived until 1948–long enough to see the airplane he helped invent used in two world wars, drop the atomic bomb, become a practical method of everyday transportation, and be upgraded with the development of jet engines and supersonic flight.

It’s quite a story, really, and well worth the read.

Putting A New Buckeye In Statuary Hall

When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite places to take visitors was Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.  Statuary Hall is the former location of the House of Representatives chamber and is now the home of dozens of statues of American luminaries.  Most of the statues are bronze or marble; the notable exception that I recall was the towering black and gold depiction of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, who looked like he could have walked off the pedestal and competed successfully in the Arnold bodybuilding competition.

Many of the individuals depicted in the collected statues have long since faded into obscurity.  Most of them are politicians, and some of them are a bit embarrassing to see displayed so prominently at the seat of our Nation’s government because of their support for slavery.   One such example is William Allen, who served as Governor of Ohio from 1874 to 1876 and was pro-slavery and opposed to the Civil War.  Allen is one of only two Ohioans in Statuary Hall; the other is former President James Garfield.  Allen is an exceptionally bad choice to represent Ohio, which was home to the Underground Railroad, to countless men who fought and died in the Civil War, and to many of the Union’s most successful generals, including Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Appropriately, the powers that be have decided to remove the statue of Allen and pick from a list of 10 Ohioans who are viewed as better representing the values and heritage of modern Ohioans.  The list of candidates is interesting:  James Ashley, Thomas Edison, Ulysses Grant, William McCulloch, Jesse Owens, Judith Resnick, Albert Sabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Taylor Upton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Some of these names are familiar, others less so.  James Ashley was a prominent 19th century abolitionist and politician, William McCulloch was a civil rights activist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 25 years, Judith Resnick was an astronaut who was killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion, Albert Sabin was the medical researcher who developed the oral vaccine for polio, and Harriet Taylor Upton was a leading proponent of women’s suffrage.

Ohioans will get to influence the final selection through a popular vote.  I think all 10 are worthy candidates, but my preference would be for Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens, or Albert Sabin.  There already are more than enough politicians in Statuary Hall.  Adding an inventor and businessman who brought electric light to the world, or an athlete whose Olympic triumph electrified the world and exposed the stupidity of the racial superiority rantings of the Nazi regime, or a researcher whose hard work and inspiration freed millions from the debilitating effects of a terrible disease, would be fitting reflection of the many contributions that The Buckeye State has made to America.