The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 336 pp. $30 (hardcover).

David McCullough begins The Wright Brothers with some history about men who “had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds.”

One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers—some to their deaths—in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. (p. 2)

Of course, none of these men ever flew, but their spirit toward this achievement carried forward, and their dream would be realized by two brothers many years hence.

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. “Look here, boys,” said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the “bat.”

Orville’s first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday. (p. 2)

The response was probably not too encouraging. As McCullough relates, flying machines, as well as those who dreamed of making one, were the subject of satire. Nobody was expected to succeed, and anyone who made an attempt was laughed at for even trying. Such was the world into which Wilbur and Orville were born.

Because it was not the world that they left behind, however, many readers will come to the book wondering what enabled these brothers to succeed when so many others did not. McCullough conveys the fascinating answer masterfully. . . .

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