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Book Summary: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My Personal Summary

The Wright brothers had no formal education and no financial backing, but they had a voracious appetite for learning from first principals, took pride in building everything themselves, collected and recorded their own wind data, personally risked their lives with each flight, and made history through perseverance and sheer effort.

Book Notes

  • This is a biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the brothers from Dayton, Ohio who discovered flight.
  • Wilbur was born in 1867 and Orville in 1871. They grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Their childhood home had no running water or electricity.
  • The boys’ father, Bishop Wright, encouraged reading and had an impressive library. He also believed in the importance of self education over formal education and didn’t mind when the boys wanted to miss school to tinker on projects at home.
  • “The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” -Orville Wright
  • In 1889, while still in high school, Orville started his own print shop and started publishing his own newspaper about happenings around Dayton. That same year, the boys mother died at age 58 after a long battle with tuberculosis.
  • In 1893, the boys opened a bicycle shop where they sold and repaired bicycles, which were starting to become wildly popular at the time.
  • In 1896, Orville was struck with typhoid fever and Wilbur stayed near him constantly to care for him. During this time, Wilbur began to read about a German glider enthusiast named Otto Lilienthal who had recently been killed in an accident.
  • In 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institute and requested a comprehensive reading list on books about flight. The brothers became obsessed with learning how to build gliders.
  • At the time, tons of famous inventors were working on the problem of flight including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Many of these inventors had the backing of tens of thousands of dollars.
  • “In no way did any of this discourage or deter Wilbur and Orville Wright, any more than the fact that they had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own. Or the entirely really possibility that at some point they could be killed.”
  • There was a flurry of inventions coming out of Dayton, Ohio at the time, with Dayton ranked as first in the country relative to population in the creation of new patents.
  • In 1900, Wilbur wrote a letter to the U.S. Weather Bureau asking about locations around the U.S. that had (1) steady winds, (2) little rain, and (3) sandy beaches for soft landings that were conducive for testing planes. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was at the top of the list.
  • The brothers built a glider that was 18 feet wide with material costs of less than $15 total. They lived in a tent at Kitty Hawk and tested the glider several times. The locals thought they were a bit nuts but entertaining to watch.
  • The brothers returned home to Dayton to work at their bicycle shop and make improvements to the design of their glider.
  • In 1901, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk. Upon arrival, they built a hangar by hand for the larger glider they were using. They had several test runs but didn’t experience the progress they wanted. Wilbur even declared “not in a thousand years would man ever fly.”
  • The brothers noted that over a period of five years, Otto Lilienthal only spent five hours total in the air. They knew that it required much more time in the air to actually learn how to fly a glider.
  • The brothers found that previous calculations made by Otto Lilienthal and other famous flight enthusiasts didn’t seem correct, so they built their own wind tunnel in their bicycle shop and took their own measurements on different variations of wings and surfaces.
  • The brothers just got shit done using first principals – they built their own gliders, built shelter at Kitty Hawk, wrote to the Smithsonian asking for books, took their own window measurements – they were relentlessly resourceful. They had similar work ethic as Elon Musk.
  • In 1902 the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk and after doing about 1,000 tests, had figured out the basics of flight. Their next step was to return home to build a motor.
  • The manager of the bicycle shop hired by the Wright brothers, Charlie Taylor, built the first motor for the glider.
  • I’m 1903, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk and flew a glider with a motor (known as The Flyer) for the first time in history for a total of 59 seconds. It was the first manned flight in history.
  • In 1904, the brothers did hundreds of flights in a field in Dayton called Huffman Prairie. By now, they could fly thousands of feet, turn in circles, and land reliably. However, they received almost no press and attention and were generally thought of as “nuts” by the public.
  • By 1905, the brothers had built an improved glider called The Flyer III and were regularly flying 25+ miles per flight.
  • When the brothers began to build flyers that could carry two people, they agreed to never fly together so that if one of them was killed in a crash the other could continue their work.
  • In 1908, Wilbur put on a public demonstration of the Flyer lll in front of crowds in Le Mans, France. The public was amazed and it became immediately apparent that the Wright brothers had conquered flight and were leagues ahead of anyone else in the word working on flying contraptions. During the same time, Orville demonstrated the Flyer in Virginia to public crowds. The brothers instantly became known worldwide.
  • Orville had a bad crash in Washington in which a passenger died. He took several months to recover himself. Eventually him and his sister Katharine joined Wilbur in France and over several months won $200k+ in prizes and contracts, making them financially comfortable.
  • Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 at age 45. Orville died of a heart attack in 1948 at age 77.
  • Note: Typhoid fever was caused by drinking contaminated water. This became much less common once water sanitation systems improved in cities.

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