The Wright Brothers
by David McCullough
Overview: The Wright Brothers is a biographical history of
Orville and Wilbur Wright following their lives and developments
that led them to flight and beyond. McCullough begins by investigating
their personal history and development from childhood to adulthood,
describing the influences of their father and family. He then shows how
their entrepreneurial spirit led them to create a bicycle shop and use
that experience to purse manned flight. The story emphasizes the unwavering
and sometimes maniacal singularity of focus that led them to their discovery
and successes. However, it does not end when they take flight, but rather
continues on to demonstrate the struggles they encountered once they’d achieved
this pinnacle, both in getting others to recognize the work and to achieve
financial success from it.
In Chapter 1, McCullough describes the Wrights and the family dynamics
that contributed to their personal development. What were the critical components
of natural aptitude, intellectual preparation, and practical preparation that set
the groundwork for their later aerial accomplishments? In retrospect, Orville
described “intellectual curiosity” as the brother’s greatest special advantage(p.18).
What did his family do to nurture the Wright Brother’s curiosity, and how can they be applied
your own unit?
Chapter 2 examines how Orville and Wilbur reached out to others and received responses
that helped them learn about the subject of flight. To what degrees did serendipity
and their social network play in their decision to attempt to build the first successful
powered aircraft, and help them gain the knowledge they needed? What obstacles did they
need to overcome along the way, and how were they able to negotiate or work around them?
In Chapter 3, McCullough describes a series of test failures that ultimately demonstrate
that “the long established, supposedly reliable calculations and tables…were, in
a word, &lsquoworthless’” (p.63). What made these “failures” extremely useful, and is that the
right term we should use to describethem compared to other types of failures? How did the
Wright Brothers manage their risk when going beyond the body of established knowledge,
ultimately proving its inadequacy?
Chapter 4 begins with Orville’s quote, “We had to go ahead and discover everything for
ourselves.” and details the new tests and experiments the Wrights designed to fill the
gaps in knowledge that their earlier efforts had uncovered. What kept the Wright Brothers
engaged with their project despite these initial setbacks? How can the ways Wilbur and
Orville attacked the fundamental problems underlying their experiments inform the way that
the DoD innovates today?
In Chapter 5, McCullough describes the run up to the first manned powered flight onDecember
17th, 1903. How did reading about the methodical process leading up to this historic flight
differ from the “Eureka Moment” we often ascribe to major breakthroughs? Why were the Wrights
able to achieve with less than $1000 in private funds what Langley’s team could still not achieve
after spending over $70,000 of mostly public money?
- In Chapter 6, McCullough describes the continuation of the Wrights flying experiments
back in Ohio. What are the modern implications of the Wrights comment that
“The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power”?
How important was iteration and repetition in the advance of the Wright’s continued progress?
In Chapter 7, the author describes the obstacles Orville and Wilbur faced to wide-stream acceptance and financial
support for their work. Which challenges and social forces experienced by the Wright Brothers continue to stymie
innovation even in our highly connected age? What was the effect of the separation on their collaboration, and how
did they stay connected?
In Chapter 8, McCullough describes the Wright Brothers’ effort to get acceptance of their invention overseas. What,
if anything, did Wilbur gain from his time in Le Mans (and France in general) that would have been impossible had he
stayed home? How important is capturing the imagination of the general public in order to advance aviation? What might
we do today to recapture that imagination in aerospace?
In Chapter 9, McCullough details both record setting flights and the first manned flight fatality back in the US. How did
Orville’s crash and Lt Selfridge’s death affect the further development of the project, beyond the initial slowdown of the
timeline? How did attitudes about risk at that time compare with those we have today, and what are the upsides and downsides
of any differences? Why do we see risk differently today? Or do we?
In Chapter 10, McCullough describes the Wrights achieving “rock star” status overseas while demonstrating the Flyer. What
personal qualities and types of engagements were most successfully in helping Wilbur promote both his invention and enthusiasm
for aviation overseas? How did that enthusiasm translate into action in France compared with back in the United States?
In Chapter 11 and the epilogue, McCullough describe the Wrights triumphal return to the US and their attempts to secure both their
legacy and their business. How did the Wright Brothers “plan to fail”, and how did their approach differ from Samuel Langley’s “Dream Team”
effort? What were the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What kept the Wrights grounded at the heights of their success,
and how did they cope with the fallout of lawsuits and challenges to the originality of their ideas? How did Orville, who lived to see
the destruction wrought by aircraft in both World Wars, personally reconcile the ethical implications of his invention and the capabilities it unleashed?