First in flight: David McCullough's 'Wright Brothers'

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winning author of “Truman” and other biographies, comes to Dearborn on June 10 to discuss his latest book, “The Wright Brothers.”

It's enough to make a Buckeye weep. Two of the most famous buildings in Ohio — the Wright brothers' Dayton bicycle shop and their family home — are in Michigan, at Greenfield Village.

It was in that bike shop that Wilbur and Orville Wright used simple lathes and band saws to construct their first flying machine in 1899. Several years of experiments led to the brothers' successful flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Humans had cracked the code on flying.

Should we feel guilty that Henry Ford hauled the Wright house and shop north to Dearborn in 1937? David McCullough, author of the new biography "The Wright Brothers," used to feel bad, but he's changed his mind.

"If Henry Ford hadn't brought (the buildings) up, they wouldn't have been preserved," said the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. "Orville was still alive at the time and oversaw every aspect of moving the buildings. We know now that the interior (of the house) is exactly as it was, as is the interior of the bicycle shop. If the buildings had stayed in Dayton, I'm not even sure they would have survived at all."

McCullough, 81, will discuss the Wrights and his book, which currently sits atop the New York Times bestseller list, at The Henry Ford in Dearborn on June 10. The "Evening With" event is sold out, but his book isn't, and anyone can read it, go to Greenfield Village and gaze at the little shop where the two Midwestern bicycle mechanics conquered the mysteries of flight.

That Wilbur and Orville were dismissed as mere bicycle mechanics who never went to college fires the author up.

Harry Truman, who was the subject of McCullough's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Truman," was similarly dismissed as a Midwestern rube, a mere St. Louis haberdasher.

"I see now that again and again, I've been writing about people who won't quit," McCullough said. "George Washington in the year 1776 , who had every reason in the world to say 'The hell with it, we can't win this war, I'm getting out of it.' Or Harry Truman running in 1948, when he suffered one defeat or setback after another, but he just never gave up."

Book details brothers' lives

With Wilbur and Orville, it was the very methodical, meticulous and on the surface, mundane way they went about things, always trying again, no matter how many times they failed.

Wilbur was determined to understand the mechanics of how birds flew, and how they adjusted for wind direction and velocity. He read books about animal flight and wrote to the Smithsonian for every booklet they had on aviation.

He finally concluded that humans could design wings as good as a bird's, "but that was not the point, or the lesson from birds," as McCullough writes. As Wilbur said in a speech to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, "The soaring problem is apparently not so much one of better wings, as of better operators."

Wilbur and Orville were lifelong bachelors who lived with their father and sister (their mother died at 58). It's fortunate for aviation that neither married, since their obsession with flying filled up any free time left over after their work in the bicycle shop all day.

Orville was the more outgoing and fun-loving brother, although he had "strange," moody spells. One such spell came after Wilbur's death when their sister Katharine left Dayton to marry an old college friend at the age of 58. Orville refused to speak to her again.

Wilbur was the more self-confident brother, a smooth public speaker. With his "thin, serious face, lit by the strangely gentle, intelligent and radiant eyes," (as a French journalist described him), he was the intellectual sparkplug.

"Orville was very inventive mechanically and had great ingenuity, but Wilbur really was a genius," McCullough said.

Appearances could be deceiving. While he was on extended business trips to Paris, the austere-looking, abstemious (he never drank or smoked) Wilbur spent days reveling in the art at the Louvre Museum. He also observed in minute detail the architecture of Paris and wrote about it. McCullough loves that this "bicycle mechanic from Ohio" was so besotted with art and architecture.

The Wrights' minister father, Bishop Milton Wright, was an encouraging parent, allowing his children to take time off from school if they were experimenting with something interesting.

The minister's constant travel forced them to be independent. Wilbur and Orville were accomplished cooks, and they were able to build a handsome porch onto the family house as well as interior upgrades. These skills came in handy when they had to build their own shelter in Kitty Hawk, where they traveled to experiment with their flying machines. They also were able to take virtually any ingredients and make meals for themselves and the men who gathered to help them, organizing a meticulous kitchen in their home in Kitty Hawk, in the remote Outer Banks of North Carolina.

They'd traveled to Kitty Hawk to test their Flyer because of the high winds there and the soft, forgiving sand dunes. The locals were curious, but skeptical. One, Bill Tate, said Outer Banks people believed in "a good God, a bad Devil, and a hot Hell" and that "God did not intend man should ever fly."

Long letters are key

McCullough knew almost nothing about the Wrights when he started working on the book. It was a cache of the family's lengthy letters to each other, that gave him a fix on their personalities.

"The letters were an inexhaustible source. It was like some great iron ore mine, you just take it and process it and make it into steel," McCullough said. "There were over 1,000 of them, all long letters. The Wrights were incapable of a short letter, or a boring one."

McCullough was happy to bring many of the secondary characters in the Wrights' story to the fore.

One was Amos Root, the first journalist to write about the Wrights' Dayton experiments in flight (while the local Dayton newspapers, unfathomably, ignored them). Root was a beekeeper and wrote about Wilbur and Orville in his "Gleanings in Bee Culture" journal in 1905. Tom Hanks has secured the rights to "The Wright Brothers" to produce it as an HBO series, as he did with McCullough's Pulitzer-winning 2001 book "John Adams." The author fervently hopes actor Paul Giamatti will be cast as the beekeeper.

There's also their feisty sister Katharine, who virtually lived in a Washington, D.C., hospital when Orville was recuperating from severe injuries sustained in a 1908 plane crash, and Charlie Taylor, the bike mechanic who ran the Wrights' shop when they were off experimenting with their Flyers. Taylor was a constant irritant to Katharine, who dismissed him as a "know it all hired man." He knew quite a lot: he built the engine for their first motorized Flyer, never having done such a thing in his life.

While we know the outcome — the Wrights eventually went airborne in their Flyer — it's a tribute to the author's skill that there is such suspense in the narrative, the reader wonders if the brothers will really beat the canny French into the air. (When they finally do, French aviator Leon Delagrange exclaims, "Well, we are beaten! We just don't exist!")

Before they convinced the world that it could be done, the Wrights were ridiculed for even thinking that they could fly. Even today, although they are given credit for opening the skies to mankind, they're also dismissed as boring Midwesterners. One reviewer claimed that nothing of any importance happened to the Wrights in their early youth.

"How about Wilbur being hit in the teeth with a hockey stick by a guy who turns out to be one of the most notorious murderers in the history of Ohio?" McCullough said.

The guy with the hockey stick was Oliver Crook Haugh, who whacked a teenaged Wilbur in the mouth during a hockey game, knocking out his front teeth. "That for me was one of the most stunning discoveries of my work on the book," McCullough said.

Whether Haugh did it on purpose or not, it was a turning point in Wilbur's life. Before the accident, he'd been a confident athlete and accomplished student with the goal of going to Yale. But afterward, he suffered from pain and periods of depression. Instead of going to college, Wilbur stayed home and took care of his ailing mother and read constantly.

Obviously, the bucolic, leafy Dayton of the late 1800s and early 20th century had its share of darkness, although it was mostly unseen. Haugh worked at a drugstore, where he'd become a drug addict after the well-meaning druggist gave him cocaine for his rotting teeth.

"It reminds us that even then, they had their realities of tragedy and addiction and homicide and all the rest, just like we do," McCullough said.

Perhaps the most important thing McCullough brings to light in "The Wright Brothers" is their focus and work ethic. The locals around Kitty Hawk, observing the brothers' determination as they repeatedly built and rebuilt their housing and Flyer, described them as the "workingest" men they'd ever seen. Wilbur particularly would check and re-tighten every screw.

"It's a Midwestern thing," McCullough said. "This is a powerful, profound American story. I think we need that right now, we need to be reminded of what we've done and the grit and character it took to do that. That's not vanished yet out of our system, I'm convinced."

About the


"The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster) is available at Metro Detroit bookstores, and other web retailers.

McCullough's previous books include "1776," "John Adams," "Truman," "Mornings on Horseback" and "The Johnstown Flood."

At The Henry Ford

An Evening with David McCullough: June 10 at the museum, sold out.

Wright Brothers exhibits at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village: Visitors may see many Wright Brothers artifacts here, including the Wright family home and the Wright brothers' cycle shop, which were transported to Greenfield Village by Henry Ford in 1937 and reconstructed with input from Orville Wright (Wilbur Wright died in 1912, only 45). Wright tracked down some of the original furnishings as well, according to Henry Ford transportation curator Matt Anderson. The museum also owns two original Wright bicycles — they made their own — a Van Cleve and a St. Clair, which are very rare now. And in the Henry Ford is a replica of the 1903 Flyer that the brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, constructed in 2003 for the centennial of their feat. (The original is at the Smithsonian, with one of the Henry Ford's Wright bicycles, on loan, next to it). In Dearborn, you can also see a set of tools used by Charlie Wilson, the Wrights' right-hand man, who built the engine that powered their 1903 Flyer, never having built an engine before.

'Home from Kitty Hawk,' Greenfield Village

In a dramatic reenactment, three actors portray Wilbur, Orville and their sister, Katharine Wright, in December 1903, when the brothers have just returned to Dayton from their flying experiments in Kitty Hawk, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Check for daily performance times at or by calling (313) 982-6001.