Book Summary and Analysis |

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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In his book, The Wright Brothers, McCullough tells the story of two aviation pioneers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who invented and built the world’s first successful heavier-than-air flying machine and made the first controlled flight. McCullough’s story of the Wright Brothers’ life and inventions is full of details that McCullough found when researching their papers at the Library of Congress.

In the beginning of his book, McCullough tells about the Wright family from Dayton, Ohio. Readers learn from McCullough’s book that Orville Wright played the violin and Wilbur Wright played the harmonica. Wilbur and Orville had two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, and a younger sister, Katharine. Katharine later graduated from Oberlin College and became a high school Latin teacher. Their mother had died of tuberculosis in 1889. Wilbur and Orville remained lifelong bachelors. They lived in Dayton, Ohio with their father, clergyman Milton Wright.

The Wright brothers were practically inseparable, even though they had different personalities. Wilbur was older; he was more studious and serious. Orville was shyer and gentler than Wilbur.

Their father, Bishop Wright, encouraged them to read and learn broadly. Orville recalled later how important it was to them that their father had encouraged their intellectual curiosity. In high school, Orville started a print shop to publish his own newspaper, and Wilbur became the editor of the newspaper.

In the 1890s, when bicycles first became very popular in the US, Wilbur, Orville and Katharine followed the “bicycle” fashion. They opened a workshop where they repaired and sold bicycles (in winter time, the shop stayed busy sharpening ice skates). Charlie Taylor, a skilled mechanic, worked at their shop repairing bicycles. Later, when the Wright brothers worked on their first airplane, the Wright Flyer, Taylor built a lightweight engine for it.

Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley were among the few people who came close to flight before the Wright brothers’ first flights. Chanute was a French-born American civil engineer and aviation pioneer. Langley was an American physicist, astronomer, inventor of the bolometer and pioneer of aviation. He also served as the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Otto Lilienthal was a German engineer and a pioneer of aviation who made the first well-documented gliding flights. He built and flew more than a dozen gliders that were designed to imitate the wings of birds. In 1896, Lilienthal died of injuries sustained when his glider stalled and fell from a height of approximately 15 meters (50 feet).

Wilbur, who had been captivated since childhood by the flight of birds, was the first one out of the Wright brothers to develop an interest in manned flight. He began to follow Lilienthal’s experiments. On May 30, 1899, he wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution, inquiring about the materials used in aviation efforts to date. That letter turned out to be one of the most significant letters of his life. Once Wilbur received the information he asked for, he and his brother Orville studied it, gaining knowledge and inspiration for their own invention.

The Wright brothers were skillful and detail-oriented designers. In the pursuit of their dream of flight, they used their ingenuity to overcome numerous frustrations, obstacles and disappointments. For example, in order to better understand the effect of wind on the wings of an aircraft, they used a fan and a wooden box to build a small wind tunnel. They decided not to accept financial support from outsiders. From 1900 to 1903, the Wrights spent a little less than 1,000 dollars on the construction of a flying machine and their travel to and from Kitty Hawk. This money came from the profits of their bicycle shop.

The Wright brothers’ 1903 manned flights off the Outer Banks of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk were the first flights in which a piloted aircraft took off under its own power into the air, travelled forward with no loss of speed, and landed at a point that was located just as high as the point from which it started.

At the time of their first successful flights, few people were interested in their courageous undertaking. The only witnesses to the Wright brothers’ initial flights on December 17, 1903, were three men who lived nearby, a dairy farmer and an 18-year-old boy. Most journalists considered controlled flight impossible; therefore, the Wright brothers’ first flights received very little press attention, and the first news reports were either incorrect or exaggerated.

Amos Root, an Ohio businessmen, inventor and the editor of a rural Ohio publication about beekeeping, was the first one to publish articles in his own Gleanings in Bee Culture that accurately described the Wright brothers’ first successful flights witnessed by Root in Ohio in 1904 and 1905.

The Wright brothers continued working on their flying machine. They installed a more powerful engine, and they repeatedly made controlled flights over distances greater than 25 miles. Their proposal to sell the aircraft to the US government was declined twice. At the same time, the British and French governments expressed interest in the Wrights’ invention.

In 1905, the Wrights signed an agreement with a group of businessmen from France. 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.

In 1909, the Wrights were finally acknowledged in the US, where they attended homecoming ceremonies in their honor and received medals presented by President William H. Taft. During the festivities arranged in their home town to celebrate their accomplishments, the Wrights a few times left the festivities to spend time in their airplane workshop.

McCullough further describes in his book how the Wright Bicycle Shop was changed into the “Wright Company for the manufacture of airplanes” and how the Wright brothers struggled with legal and business matters.

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