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History, Philosophy, Politics and Society



A Summary and Analysis of

David McCullough’s

The Wright Brothers

Inside and Beyond

McCullough’s Story about Pioneers of Aviation

by T.S. Snaefell

Copyright©2015 T.S. Snaefell. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.


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II.1. Important Ideas and Facts about the Wright Brothers and Their Inventions

The following “Inside-and-Beyond-McCullough’s-book” ideas and facts are not limited to the content of McCullough’s book. They comprise important key ideas and facts from McCullough’s book and information from other sources, which is not found in McCullough’s book. This additional information is provided to help readers get a bigger picture of the Wright brothers’ life and their accomplishments.


1. Wilbur and Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright was born 1867, and Orville was born in 1871. They were the third and fourth of five children of a minister. Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. As an itinerant minister, he had to travel frequently. In 1878, he brought a toy for his children from one of his trips. It was a small model helicopter based on a design by Alphonse Pénaud, the French pioneer of aviation. Made of cork, bamboo and paper, the helicopter was powered by a rubber band that spun its blades. This toy inspired Wilbur and Orville’s interest in aeronautics.

From a young age, Wilbur, Orville and their younger sister Katharine learned to depend on one other, to love reading books and enjoy expanding their knowledge about science, literature and art. Wilbur was the most gifted child in the family, and his parents dreamed that he would attend Yale University. When Wilbur was about 18 years old, his plans were ended after a hockey accident left him with broken teeth and a mangled jaw. The injury sent him into a severe depression, and he rarely left the house over the next few years. Wilbur did not receive his high school diploma, and he canceled his plans for college. Wilbur spent much of that time reading books and caring for his ailing mother.

Their mother, Susan Wright, died of tuberculosis in 1889.  Two older siblings left home and started their own families. Wilbur, Orville and Katharine had to tend house after their mother’s death. The house did not have conveniences that people are accustomed to nowadays. But it had a wealth of books on natural history, encyclopedias, history, fiction, poetry, and theology. Their father, who was an avid reader himself, implanted in his children a love of reading. The Wright family was among the most frequent visitors to the public library in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1889, Wilbur joined Orville in running a printing press. They published their own newspaper, The West Side News. Wilbur was the editor, and Orville was the publisher. In 1892, the Wright brothers opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in Dayton, Ohio. They called it the Wright Cycle Exchange. (At that time, bicycles were in fashion among people of all ages and both genders.) The shop carried many brands of bicycles, such as Envoy, Smalley, Fleetwing, Reading, Coventry Cross and Warwick, among others. Prices ranged from 40 to 100 dollars. The shop also carried an inventory of their own homemade models, as well as rented bicycles, parts and accessories for bicycles. For the Wrights, it was a smart move to open the shop in 1892, when the League of American Wheelmen held their twelfth annual meeting in Dayton with thousands of cyclists attending.

Soon their shop became profitable and the Wrights could afford to hire Charlie Taylor, a talented mechanic who later also maintained the shop while the Wrights were working on their aircraft. The bicycle shop became profitable enough to provide the capital the Wright brothers would need to build their airplanes.

Wilbur and Orville lived in the same house, they worked together, and even kept their money in a joint bank account. Neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married. Even though they never went to college, the Wright brothers learned on their own about physics and other natural sciences. They first demonstrated their mechanical talent when they worked in the print shop and later in the bicycle shop.

The brothers further developed their interest in aviation after Orville became very sick with typhoid and almost died from the disease. In 1896, when Orville was recovering from typhoid, Wilbur read books about science and mathematics to him. Some of their reading was about the scientists and engineers who had tried to learn to fly in the air. Wilbur and Orville learned about Otto Lilienthal, a German glider enthusiast (known as the “Glider King”) who proposed that the science of flight would strongly benefit from a better understanding of a bird’s “relationship” to the wind. Wilbur and Orville became convinced that they could learn more about flight by watching how birds flew.

On May 30, 1899, the Wright brothers formally stated their desire to join the aeronautical community in a letter that Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution. In his letter, Wilbur asserted his belief that human flight was possible and announced his intent to pursue research in manned flight. He also requested all the publications on the subject the Smithsonian could make available to him. Wilbur wrote,

I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.

Wilbur received a reply from the Smithsonian with a large number of pamphlets. Soon after that, the Wright brothers constructed a kite-like flying machine with a five-foot wingspan. Their decision to begin with the construction of a glider was not accidental. After extensive studies of the materials from the Smithsonian, the Wrights came to the conclusion that experiments with man-carrying gliders would be the right step in the direction of building an engine-powered aircraft. Particularly, they wished to use the gliders to study aerodynamics and learn more about controlled flight.

In 1902, the Wright brothers built a glider that had more lift and was more maneuverable than their earlier gliders. Wilbur and Orville decided then that the next step was to build a motorized aircraft. In February 1903, their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, built and tested a 12-horsepower airplane motor that was installed on the Flyer.

On December 17, 1903, Orville made the first successful controlled flight of an airplane in history. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Wilbur made a second flight, which covered 175 feet, and Orville made a third flight, flying a distance of 200 feet. Wilbur made the fourth flight on that day. This flight lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. The flight ended when a strong wind tumbled the Flyer over. The damage to the plane was so serious that no more flights were made that season.

Wilbur was the leader in the Wright brothers’ partnership. Orville was shy and avoided talking in front of an audience. So, when the time came to travel to France and demonstrate the Wright plane in front of the public, Wilbur was the man for the job. In 1905, Wilbur traveled to Paris where he was accepted very enthusiastically. He was greeted by Léon Delagrange and Louis Blériot, highly praised French aviators. Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in Europe, and they were also praised as heroes.

After returning to the US, Wilbur spent a significant amount of time on business matters and patent lawsuits. He died of typhoid fever in 1912 at age 45. In the report on his burial, a local newspaper described him as “a spiritually minded man, remarkably free from covetousness, vanity, and pride.”

After Wilbur’s death, Orville continued working on their projects. In 1913, he tested an automatic stabilizer, which was the last invention that Wilbur and Orville had worked on together. In October 1915, Orville sold the Wright Company to a syndicate of investors. The company then merged with two other companies to form the Wright-Martin Company. In 1919, it was reorganized as the Wright Aeronautical Company.

In August 1909, the Wright brothers had started a patent war against Glenn Curtiss, who had built an airplane, the Golden Flyer, using a control system that the Wright brothers considered infringed on their patent. Over a number of years, Wilbur and Orville together, and then Orville by himself, had defended their patents in court.

Orville’s active role in aviation waned during the early 1920s. However, he continued to serve on several aeronautical boards and committees. In 1947, Orville suffered a mild heart attack. After a second heart attack, he died at age 76 on January 30, 1948.

The original Wright Flyer that Orville piloted in 1903 kept “travelling” for years before it reached its final destination. The Flyer was originally damaged during one of the flights in December 1903. Orville made major repairs to it and, in June 1916, the Flyer was displayed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seven months later, it was displayed at New York City’s Grand Central Palace during an aviation exhibition.

For a few years, the Smithsonian kept insisting that Samuel Langley’s airplane—the one that landed in the Potomac River in December 1903—was the first airplane capable of sustained flight. Orville Wright disputed this statement and shipped the Flyer to the Science Museum of London, where it remained on display until the 1940s. The Flyer was returned back to the US after World War II. It is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington


2. Katharine Wright

The most important woman in the Wright brothers’ life was their younger sister, Katharine. She managed the household for the Wright family after her mother died. Katharine was 14 years old at that time. She was intelligent and very opinionated, and she was the only one out of five siblings to earn a college degree.

Katharine attended Oberlin College in northern Ohio, one the first colleges in the US that admitted women. There, she met Henry J. Haskell, the son of missionaries. Haskell was very good at math, and he helped Katharine with her math studies. Soon enough, they became friends. In 1899, Katharine began working as a high-school teacher. She was authoritarian and demanding at home, so when she began teaching, Orville jokingly asked her for a list of her first-week “victims.” She wrote later to her father, “I had five or six notoriously bad boys assigned to my room. I was ready for them and nipped their smartness in the bud.”

The most sociable of the Wright siblings, Katharine managed to organize a rich social life when she returned from college. Parties, bicycle outings and camping trips were part of her life. Agnes Osborn, a childhood friend of Katharine, was attending these events and so did shy Orville. He courted Agnes Osborn, but never came close to making a marriage proposal.

Katharine was always there when her brothers needed her help and support. When Wilbur and Orville worked on perfecting their powered aircraft at Huffman Prairie, located close to Dayton, Katharine helped them with their experiments. After Orville was injured in a horrible flight crash at the Army field at Fort Myer, Katharine took a leave of absence from her teaching job in Dayton and traveled to Fort Myer. She stayed by Orville’s side, nursing him and taking care of the airplane business.

Katharine flew on her brothers’ airplanes, traveled with Wilbur and Orville to Europe and met public figures in the US and abroad. When the Wrights traveled to Europe in 1907, Katharine answered questions that were coming from newspapers and magazines. She also screened business offers that the Wrights were receiving at that time.

Some biographers hypothesize that when Wilbur, Orville and Katharine were young, they might have made a pact never to marry and to always stay together. Nevertheless, in 1909, Katharine renewed her friendship with Harry Haskell who had become a newspaper publisher. Haskell’s wife Isabella died of cancer in 1923. In November 1926, Katharine married Haskell. As a result, Orville refused to attend the wedding and stopped speaking to Katharine. A few years later, in March of 1929, when Katharine was dying from pneumonia, Orville finally visited her at her deathbed.


3. Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor was the manager and mechanic for the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop. He also built the first engine for the Wright Flyer.

The general principles of aerodynamics had already been discovered by the time the Wright brothers decided to build an aircraft propelled by an engine. It was known that four main forces acted on a flying aircraft: weight (the Earth’s gravitational pull), lift, drag and thrust. At the time, there was no engine that was light enough and at the same time powerful enough to produce the thrust for powered flight.

Charlie Taylor solved this problem. He ordered an aluminum engine block and built the world’s first airplane engine in the Wrights’ workshop over the course of 6 weeks. The engine weighed 152 pounds and generated 12 horsepower. The engine and the propeller produced the thrust needed to send the Wright Flyer into the air.


4. Building and Flying the Wright Flyer

It took time for the Wright brothers to master controlled flight. Wilbur and Orville spent years watching and studying flying birds in order to figure out how to control flight. They observed that birds adjusted the tips of their wings in a way that allowed the birds to have the tip of one wing at a raised angle and the tip of the other wing at a lower angle. Consequently, the birds were able to keep balance and control flight. This trick with the wing tip was the solution to lateral control. This method was named “wing warping.” The Wright brothers began their quest for air flight in summer 1899, when they built a device that looked like a kite. In this device, they implemented their first use of wing warping to manage flight.

Wilbur wrote a letter to Chanute, asking if he could recommend any good locations for flight experiments (the Wrights were looking for a place with sand dunes for soft landing, little rain and winds of at least 15 miles per hour). Chanute recommended California or Florida. The Wrights sent a similar inquiry to the US Weather Bureau. The Bureau replied that Kitty Hawk in North Carolina should be the place they were looking for. Kitty Hawk was located about 700 miles from Dayton, Ohio.

The Wright brothers decided that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, would be the place for their experiments. They spent time there over the next three years, testing their first experimental glider and working on the “wing warping” method. In 1901 and 1902, the Wrights were building gliders and learning how to fly them. In 1903, they added the engine and propeller to their flying machine. Using the wing warping method, the Wright brothers were able to achieve the degree of lateral control that later surprised and impressed the Europeans.

Since his first trip to Kitty Hawk, Wilbur had always had a camera with him. The Wright brothers were determined to make a record of each flight they made. They then studied the photographs in order to find whatever they had missed during the flights. Later, they also used the photographs as proof of their achievements in order to defend their patents.

When the Wright brothers were designing and building their first powered airplane, they had to accomplish four important tasks: to build the first airplane engine that would be light enough and powerful enough; to design an effective air propeller; to develop techniques for controlling flight; and to successfully pilot the plane.

In order to design their first powered airplane, which the Wright brothers called the Flyer, they had to work with lift and drag equations, using data from their wind tunnel. (In 1901, they had built a small-scale wind tunnel out of a six-foot long wooden box and a fan powered by a gas engine.) The Wright brothers calculated that the wing area would have to be increased to more than 500 square feet so that the Flyer could carry an engine, propellers, and additional structural support.

They also estimated that the Flyer would need an 8-horsepower engine. It would allow the Flyer to move at a minimum airspeed of 23 miles per hour. The Flyer’s success also depended on the three-axis control system, which included wing-warping (required for lateral balance), a moveable rudder and an elevator (required for pitch control). The right wing of the Flyer was made longer than the left wing in order to compensate for the weight of the engine located to the right of the pilot.

The Wright brothers decided to build their own engine for the Flyer. The engine had four horizontal cast-iron cylinders set into a cast aluminum crankcase. Lightweight aluminum was crucial to an airplane’s engine design when the Wrights built their Flyer, and it remains a primary construction material for today’s aircraft. The Wright engine produced 12 horsepower, which was acceptable for the Wright Flyer.

  When designing propellers for the Flyer, the Wright brothers treated them as a rotary wing positioned vertically and producing a horizontal force (thrust). They used two large propellers spinning in opposite directions to neutralize gyroscopic effects. Wilbur and Orville made a chain arrangement that ran from the engine crankshaft to steel propeller shafts, transferring power from the engine to the propellers.

The Flyer was bigger and of course heavier than the earlier Wright gliders. In order to launch it, the Wright brothers built a 60-foot launching rail. During launch, the Flyer was positioned on a wheeled dolly that rode down the track. The Wrights called the rail the “Grand Junction Railroad.”

On December 14, 1903, the Flyer seemed to be ready. It was the first heavier-than-air machine powered by an engine and capable of sustaining a controlled flight with a pilot aboard. The Wright brothers tossed a coin to decide who would make the first attempt to fly. Wilbur won. The Flyer lifted off the launching rail, spent 3.5 seconds in the air and smashed into the sand. In spite of its fall, Wilbur felt that the engine was powerful enough and the controls were responsive enough to continue testing.

On December 17, 1903, the brothers made their first successful airplane flights in Kitty Hawk. It was Orville who made the first successful airplane flight in history. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Wilbur made a second flight, which covered 175 feet, and Orville made a third flight, flying a distance of 200 feet. Wilbur made the fourth flight on that day. This flight lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. The flight ended when a strong wind tumbled over the Flyer. The damage to the plane was so serious that no more flights were made that season.

The first flights revealed technical problems that the Wright brothers had to solve by making modifications and diligently testing the changes. In 1904 and 1905, the Wright brothers made more than 150 flights. The longest flight lasted for 38 minutes and covered 24 miles. In 1905, the Wright brothers produced the Number 3 Flyer, which served as the basis for the first truly reliable flying machine in the world. In 1906, a patent was issued for the Wright Flying Machine.

Without a doubt, though, flight remained a dangerous undertaking. In order to ensure the survival of one of the brothers, Wilbur and Orville never flew together until 1910. It is actually surprising that they survived their many airplane accidents. Orville, for example, was badly injured and almost died in an airplane crash at Fort Myer near Washington D.C.; his passenger did not survive the crash.

The Wright brothers’ wing warping technique was the most significant invention that they patented. Unlike previous aviators, whose planes crashed when trying to make a turn, the Wright Flyer was capable of making a turn, flying in circles and returning to its starting point.  Later, people who watched Wilbur’s first flights at Le Mans in France were truly amazed with the degree to which Wilbur was able to control flight. The Wrights continued to build and test larger and more powerful planes, learning how to take off, do figure eights and land.

Astonishingly (and sadly), their controlled flights received practically no public attention for some time. Two weeks after the Wrights’ first flight, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge sent a report to the War Department describing the Wrights’ success at Kill Devil Hills. Yet, the War Department had been ignoring their invention for about a year. In 1906, Scientific American questioned the truthfulness of the Wrights’ reports about their flights. The magazine’s suspicions were based on the fact that reporters did not write about those flights.

The Wright brothers continued perfecting their invention and, by 1909, Wilbur was able to pilot an airplane around the Statue of Liberty. In 1910, Orville flew the airplane above 820 meters (2,700 feet). Unfortunately, the Wrights limited their airplane’s shape to one that quickly became obsolete, failing to capitalize on the full potential of their own invention.


5. The Wrights in Paris

From October 1905 to May 1908, the Wright’s Flyer did not leave the ground as the Wright brothers had to deal with the serious challenge of making the media and the US government acknowledge the significance of their invention. While the US government ignored the Wrights’ invention, it spent approximately 70,000 dollars, which was a huge amount of money at that time, to design and build a plane that crashed in the Potomac River during its takeoff.

The French were not as “near-sighted” as the US about the Wright brothers’ invention. In March 1906, a delegation of French military experts traveled to Dayton. They tried to make a deal with the Wrights that would allow the French to produce Wright Flyers in France. However, the Wrights were possessive about their patents and did not accept the offer. After all, in order to build the kites and the Flyer, they had spent about 1,000 dollars that came from the profits from their bicycle shop. Their financial independence allowed them to be patient when looking for the best deal.

A French syndicate then proposed purchasing a single Wright Flyer for one million francs (200,000 dollars), under the condition that the Wrights would provide demonstration flights to prove that the Flyer met specific requirements in altitude, distance traveled and airspeed. In 1907, Wilbur traveled to France, where he demonstrated that the Flyer was capable of outperforming the expectations of the French. He also worked on the details of a business agreement.

The Wright brothers also learned soon enough that their invention did not remain unique. In 1908, a few builders in France were already designing and building their own airplanes. On July 25, 1909, Louis Bleriot—a French aviator, inventor and engineer—flew across the English Channel. In his flight, Bleriot covered 23 miles in 20 minutes. Even though Orville argued that Bleriot’s airplane had little control, his aircraft, which was a monoplane with a fuselage and horizontal and vertical stabilizers at the tail, became the true predecessor of the modern airplane.

On August 22, 1909, the world’s first grand aeronautical show, La Grande Semaine d’Aviation at Reims, brought together 22 pilots and their aircraft. They flew in competition against each other, flying higher and faster than the Wrights had during the preceding year. The winner of the show was Glenn Curtiss, another American aviation pioneer.


6. The Patent War

In 1906, the Wright brothers received a patent that included the wing design and the steering system of their flying machine. The Wrights showed the patents and designs to Thomas Selfridge, who was a member of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). (Alexander Graham Bell had created the AEA in 1907.)

Consequently, the AEA constructed several airplanes that looked very similar to the Wrights’ patented design. Glenn Curtiss flew some of those airplanes to an altitude of 1,017 feet, setting the altitude record for that time. Later, Curtiss designed and piloted his own airplane. In 1908, he and his airplane covered 5,360 feet in one minute and forty seconds. All of the planes that Curtiss flew used the same design that the Wright brothers had patented.

In 1908, the Wrights demanded that Curtiss stopped infringing their patent but Curtiss refused to pay license fees to the Wrights. In 1909, Curtiss sold his airplane to the Aeronautic Society of New York, ignoring the Wrights’ demands. The Wrights filed a lawsuit that was followed by a years-long legal conflict. (The Wrights also sued several foreign aviators who flew airplanes at US exhibitions.)

The patent war drained the financial resources of both parties. When Wilbur died in 1912, his family claimed that he had lost his health because of the pressure of the patent war. In 1913, Orville won the legal battle, and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Curtiss to cease making the airplanes that were in dispute. The court decision was appealed. Then, in January 1914, a US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in favor of the Wrights, but the Curtiss company used legal tricks to avoid penalties.

The Wrights’ fixation on legal issues slowed down their development of new airplanes. By 1910, their design became inferior to those of European inventors. Development of aviation in the US was inhibited so badly that the US government had to buy French airplanes during World War I.

During World War I, the US government required that US aviation companies form the Manufacturers Aircraft Association and sign cross-licensing agreements. The Wright-Martin and Curtiss companies were paid cash settlements for resolving their disputes, and the patent war between the Wright family and Glenn Curtiss was over.


7. Getting Recognized in the US

In the US, the Wright brothers became famous only in 1909, after France celebrated their invention. On September 29, 1909, Wilbur flew around the Statue of Liberty in a Flyer. Another victorious moment came when Wilbur flew up and down the Hudson River along New York City. About a million people watched his flight.

By that time, French aviation was already outperforming that of the US, and the US government finally began expressing interest in the Wrights’ Flyer. Orville had to demonstrate the Flyer in several flights at Ft. Meyer, close to Washington. The demonstrations went well until September 17, 1908, when the Flyer that carried Orville and one passenger, Thomas Selfridge, crashed. Selfridge was killed in the crash, and Orville was seriously injured. His sister Katharine looked after him during his recovery. Later, Orville and Katharine flew in the Flyer together.


II.2. A Critique of the Principal Messages in McCullough’s The Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers’ story offers lessons not only for aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs, but for the rest of us as well.

One of the lessons from their lives that McCullough’s book points out is that hard work and dedication to a greater purpose help people remain humble, thus allowing them to avoid developing a superiority complex and the sense of entitlement that so many people have nowadays. Even after the Wrights became very famous, they did not try to associate themselves with the rich and famous. Their work remained the greatest reward for them.

Another inspirational message that McCullough’s book passes on is about the value of self-education. Even though Wilbur and Orville were not college educated, their knowledge of math, science, literature and art could probably surpass the knowledge of some of today’s college graduates. McCullough also reminds us that parents’ attitudes toward the art of reading books (an art that has become rarer nowadays) and their concern about their children’s education strongly influence children’s desire to become life-long learners and can help them develop an interest in math and science.

McCullough does a good job in his book of explaining what made the Wright brothers’ discovery so important. Even though other aviators had their aircraft taking off before the Wright Flyer did, the Wrights’ invention allowed them make the first engine-powered controlled flight.

 One of the flaws in McCullough’s book, though, is that he does not spend much time discussing the dark side of the Wright brothers’ life: their obsession with defending their patents. Their preoccupation with patent protection led to the patent war, which hindered the Wrights’ further work on improving their airplanes and negatively affected the development of aviation in the US.

In my opinion, another flaw in the book is that McCullough does not include a broader picture of the development of aeronautics, leaving out many scientists and engineers whose discoveries and inventions helped the Wright brothers build their airplane.

Nevertheless, McCullough’s book certainly deserves a praise for portraying two people whose persistence, determination and ability to deal with obstacles without complaining are truly inspiring.


When Wilbur Wright died from typhoid fever in 1912, Milton Wright wrote in his diary, “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty.”

Indeed, those are the qualities that could still bring out the best in our civilization.


References and Further Reading

Freedman, F. 1994. The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. Holiday House.

Goldstone, L. 2015. Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. Ballantine Books.

McCullough, David. 2015. The Wright Brothers. Simon & Schuster.

Schlenoff, D.C. “Connecticut Proclaims Gustave Whitehead Flew before the Wright Brothers.” Scientific American, June 13, 2013 [available at]

The Wright Brothers official web site [available at]

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. [available at ]

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