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The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers

4.2 112
by David McCullough

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The #1 New York Times bestseller from David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize—the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly—Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers—bicycle mechanics from Dayton,


The #1 New York Times bestseller from David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize—the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly—Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers—bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio—changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe that the age of flight had begun, with the first powered machine carrying a pilot.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity. When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education and little money never stopped them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off, they risked being killed.

In this “enjoyable, fast-paced tale” (The Economist), master historian David McCullough “shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly” (The Washington Post) and “captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished” (The Wall Street Journal). He draws on the extensive Wright family papers to profile not only the brothers but their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them. Essential reading, this is “a story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency…about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished…The Wright Brothers soars” (The New York Times Book Review).

Editorial Reviews

The Economist
“[An] enjoyable, fast-paced tale. . . . A fun, fast ride.”
The Wall Street Journal - Roger Lowenstein
“David McCullough has etched a brisk, admiring portrait of the modest, hardworking Ohioans who designed an airplane in their bicycle shop and solved the mystery of flight on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C. He captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished and, just as important, the wonder felt by their contemporaries. . . . Mr. McCullough is in his element writing about seemingly ordinary folk steeped in the cardinal American virtues—self-reliance and can-do resourcefulness.”
Booklist (starred review)
"An outstanding saga of the lives of two men who left such a giant footprint on our modern age."
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
“[McCullough] takes the Wrights’ story aloft. . . . Concise, exciting, and fact-packed. . . . Mr. McCullough presents all this with dignified panache, and with detail so granular you may wonder how it was all collected.”
The New York Times Book Review - Daniel Okrent
“A story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency. . . . A story, well told, about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished. . . . The Wright Brothers soars.”
The Washington Post - Reeve Lindbergh
"McCullough’s magical account of [the Wright Brothers'] early adventures — enhanced by volumes of family correspondence, written records, and his own deep understanding of the country and the era — shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly."
Publishers Weekly
Mechanical invention is close to a religious calling in this reverent biography of the pioneers of heavier-than-air flight. Pulitzer-winning historian McCullough (Truman) sees something exalted in the two bicycle mechanics and lifelong bachelors who lived with their sister and clergyman father in Dayton, Ohio. He finds them—especially Wilbur, the elder brother—to be cultured men with a steady drive and quiet charisma, not mere eccentrics. McCullough follows their monkish devotion to the goal of human flight, recounting their painstaking experiments in a homemade wind tunnel, their countless wrong turns and wrecked models, and their long stints roughing it on the desolate, buggy shore at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Thanks largely to their own caginess, the brothers endured years of doubt and ridicule while they improved their flyer. McCullough also describes the fame and adulation that the brothers received after public demonstrations in France and Washington, D.C., in 1908 cemented their claims. His evident admiration for the Wrights leads him to soft-pedal their crasser side, like their epic patent lawsuits, which stymied American aviation for years. Still, McCullough's usual warm, evocative prose makes for an absorbing narrative; he conveys both the drama of the birth of flight and the homespun genius of America's golden age of innovation. Photos. Agent: Mort Janklow, Janklow & Nesbit. (May)
"An outstanding saga of the lives of two men who left such a giant footprint on our modern age."
USA Today - Ray Locker
“Few historians have captured the essence of America — its rise from an agrarian nation to the world's dominant power — like David McCullough. . . . McCullough has defined American icons and revealed new dimensions to stories that long seemed exhausted. . . . An elegant, sweeping look at the two Americans who went where no others had gone before and whose work helped create a national excellence in aviation that continues today."
The Miami Herald - Larry Lebowitz
"McCullough vividly re-creates the failures and disappointments as the Wright brothers puzzle out the scienceof bird- and insect-wing design. . . . [McCullough] continues to deliverhigh-quality material with familiar facility and grace."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Harry Levins
“We all know what they did and where they did it — Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But McCullough digs deeply to find out how they did it, and why they did it, and what happened to them in the years that followed.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch - Doug Childers
"A compelling, upbeat story that underscores the importance of industriousness, creative intelligence and indomitable patience.”
The Columbus Dispatch - Margaret Quamme
"Pleasurable to read. . . . McCullough has a gift for finding the best in his subjects without losing perspective on their flaws."
The San Antonio Express-News - David Henricks
“A master storyteller. . . . The brothers’ story unfolds and develops with grace and insight in a style at which McCullough is simply the best.”
The Boston Globe - Buzzy Jackson
“The nitty-gritty of exactly how [the Wrights] succeeded is told in fascinating detail.”
Sundar Pichai
“David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is a story about two brothers and one incredible moment in American history. But it’s also a story that resonates with anyone who believes deeply in the power of technology to change lives – and the resistance some have to new innovations.”
Library Journal
★ 04/01/2015
McCullough (John Adams; 1776) effectively blends impeccable writing with historical rigor and strong character definition in his biography of Wright brothers Wilbur, the abstract thinker and introvert; and Orville, the extrovert and hands-on doer. They had limited formal education, with the author instead attributing his subjects' success to industry, imagination, and persistence, as seen in their early enterprises as newspaper publishers, printers, and bicycle salesmen in Dayton, OH. Credit is also accorded to their widowed father, Bishop Milton Wright, as well as their sister Katharine for their support of "Ullam" (Wilbur) and "Bubs" (Orville). Highlights of McCullough's narrative include his discussions of the Wrights' innovative conception of wing-warping as a means of flight control; the brothers' first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, on December 17, 1903; the issuance of the Wright flying machine patent #821,393 on May 22, 1906; the Ohioans' ongoing search for markets abroad; and the elder Wright's perfect flying demonstrations at Le Mans, France, even as Orville was nearly killed in a similar performance before army brass at Fort Myer, VA. The author closes with the incorporation of the Wright Company, patent infringement suits filed against competitor Glenn Curtiss, and the deaths of Wilbur (1912), Milton (1917), Katharine (1929), and Orville (1948). VERDICT A signal contribution to Wright historiography. Highly recommended for academicians interested in the history of flight, transportation, or turn-of-the-century America; general readers; and all libraries.—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.
Kirkus Reviews
A charmingly pared-down life of the "boys" that grounds their dream of flight in decent character and work ethic. There is a quiet, stoical awe to the accomplishments of these two unprepossessing Ohio brothers in this fluently rendered, skillfully focused study by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning and two-time National Book Award-winning historian McCullough (The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, 2011, etc.). The author begins with a brief yet lively depiction of the Wright home dynamic: reeling from the death of their mother from tuberculosis in 1889, the three children at home, Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine, had to tend house, as their father, an itinerant preacher, was frequently absent. McCullough highlights the intellectual stimulation that fed these bookish, creative, close-knit siblings. Wilbur was the most gifted, yet his parents' dreams of Yale fizzled after a hockey accident left the boy with a mangled jaw and broken teeth. The boys first exhibited their mechanical genius in their print shop and then in their bicycle shop, which allowed them the income and space upstairs for machine-shop invention. Dreams of flight were reawakened by reading accounts by Otto Lilienthal and other learned treatises and, specifically, watching how birds flew. Wilbur's dogged writing to experts such as civil engineer Octave Chanute and the Smithsonian Institute provided advice and response, as others had long been preoccupied by controlled flight. Testing their first experimental glider took the Wrights over several seasons to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to experiment with their "wing warping" methods. There, the strange, isolated locals marveled at these most "workingest boys," and the brothers continually reworked and repaired at every step. McCullough marvels at their success despite a lack of college education, technical training, "friends in high places" or "financial backers"—they were just boys obsessed by a dream and determined to make it reality. An educational and inspiring biography of seminal American innovators.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Wright Brothers


From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man 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. He felt predestined to study flight, he said, and related a childhood memory of a kite flying down onto his cradle.

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.

Meet the Author

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include 1776, Brave Companions, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit DavidMcCullough.com.

Brief Biography

West Tisbury, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
July 7, 1933
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
B.A., Yale University, 1955

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The Wright Brothers 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 112 reviews.
M-Goddart More than 1 year ago
We all know of the lore of the Write Brothers – the brothers who invented the airplane. But do we really know their story? Their struggles? This is an AMAZING book filled with insights. The research is incredible. The writing is strong. I highly recommend this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I know that the Wright brothers invented the airplane but that is all I knew. Fascinating facts and history. The brothers were very unassuming men who gave us the greatest invention. This book should be a must for history buffs and people who love aviation. I learned so much about the history of planes and the men. Amazing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I always had a desire to read about the Wright brothers and finaly I was able to read about their lives in a no nonsense wonderfully writen book by the the master of the biography. I was impressed by their ability to create the first airplane with so little formal education.This is a must read and is full information I'll bet you didn't know.
GregPrincipato More than 1 year ago
Every school child learns that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. It is usually learned as an answer to a multipple choice question, and then little discussion beyond that, if discussed at all. But the story is far more interesting, and important. The airplane is arguably the most important invention of the 20th century and has changed the world in ways that could only be imagined by science fiction writers previously. We take it for granted. But we shuold not. Now, America's foremost biographer has told their story, and because of that millions will know it. The Wright Brothers had no particular training or knowledge in aeronautics. There were plenty who did and were also trying to accompllish powered, controlled, flight, but the Wright Brothers got there first. The story of their focus, their willignness to fail and to learn from failure, their lack of resources and lack of broader support is fascinating. Full disclosure, I work in aviation and serve as President of the Aero Club of Washington, whose first ever meeting featured the Wright Brothers and is described in the book. Still, there is plenty in this accessible volume that I had not known. It is a great story, and full of lessons for anyone of any age and any time. This is a great story that has long deserved a story teller like David McCullough. That day has arrived. Read this book!
Marineaviation More than 1 year ago
If you're a fan of McCullough, then you will love this book about the Wright Brothers. He has the ability to put you in the moment with detailed history and anecdotal details that sets him apart from other writers. To think that what happened at Kitty Hawk was the seminal moment in flight and over the past century has changed the world, and how we take aviation for granted. You will not be disappointed.
MarjorieMorningstar More than 1 year ago
David McCullough brings to life, as only he can, a time and place when the American values of a pursuing a dream with hard work and diligence could forever change the world. Wilbur and Orville Wright, these two unassuming midwestern men with only high educations took on the puzzle of their age, and with little money and no fanfare, against all the odds, were the first to solve it. Most of us know about their first successful flight, caught in that iconic photograph taken at Kitty Hawk, Despite this, it was quite some time before their fellow American's took much interest in their "tinkering," In time, of course, not only their own country, but the world began to take note. The air had been conquered. It's a great story, and it couldn't be in better hands than McCullough's..
watkd25 More than 1 year ago
David McCullough's book about the Wright Brothers is an interesting short biography about the Brothers who--not exclusively as mentioned by the author--created the first successfully powered flyable aircraft. The Wright Brothers interest in flying had come from a toy that was given to them by their father when they were children and over time their interests were expanded through reading material and through the observation and study of birds as well as the successes and failures of those before them. In the process, the Wright Brothers were ridiculed, as were others, but with strong-will and determination they were able to achieve the impossible. The aircraft, in my opinion, is one of the greatest inventions in human history and if you are interested in what Wilbur and Orville Wright contributed to the human race, which can now travel up to almost 10,000 miles in one trip without refueling, I would recommend that you get a copy of this book but only on the condition of understanding that the book is not really a technical one on the aircraft itself. In part III of the story, I felt the author overdid himself by mentioning the amount of records that were broken by the Wright Brothers airplane, most of them mentioned were records previously broken by the Brothers themselves. This is the reason for the four star rating. Dictionary/reference review: 109 Grammatical error count: No errors found.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Easy to read. Good history of the brothers contribution to flying.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A joy to read ----- my favorite author,. exploring a subject I knew too little of. Thank You Mr. McCullough!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author makes you feel as though you are right there on this exciting journey with the Wright family. I learned so much more than just Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to make a plan that flew. A very enjoyable book.
irving-roberts More than 1 year ago
In his usual style David McCullough hits it again but this time with one of the best "stories" of American entrepreneurship ever told. The reader learns the failures and the hard work that went into success as well as the foibles of daring to step out against mainstream ideas and competition. This could be classified as a page turner as it is hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Orville and Wilbur were not Teddy or Harry, for the biographical purposes of David from McCullough's perspective. The biography is woefully lacking in the detail of how the Wright brothers's achieved thier amazing development of the airplane. From my viewpoint, how the Wright brothers discovered the physics of lift for an airplane wing is an important part of thier biography, not Wilbur's fascination with Paris.
KRB More than 1 year ago
McCullough writes like he talks. Intoxicating. The book was way too short.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Compared to Mr. McCullough's previous work, I was very disappointed in this book.  There were relatively few pages devoted to how they actually solved the mysteries of flight, and far too many devoted to really extraneous things.  At one point, we are treated to a report on the winter weather in Dayton.  It's just stuck o  on the page and has no bearing on the narrative.  I couldn't help but wonder what  percentage of the book was nothing more than letters the Wright family had written, and how much McCullough had actually written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a great book. Well written and easy to read. As many times as I have been to Kill Devils Hill I was always amazed by the Wright Brothers accomplishment . But I never thought about what happened after that. This book goes beyond the first flight and into what they did after that. Great family story of 2 determined brothers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a well crafted, well researched story of the Wright brothers, and their family. I had a hard time putting the book down.
irishlass77 More than 1 year ago
Every book David McCullough writes is a winner. He makes history come alive in a very wonderful way that isn't dull or boring. I learned so much of the wonderful Wright Brothers and what visionaries they were with abilities that were unlimited.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
David McCullough can bring history to life almost like no other. This book is fascinating from the first page to the last -- and plain fun to read too. McCullough is a master, he interweaves history like a story. Really enjoyable for every reader. Great for summer too!
fritz12 More than 1 year ago
Remarkable story of two extraordinary men. A great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book
ethanpsx More than 1 year ago
David McCullough does it again. For those who didn't care for the book due to the lack of in depth information, you might want to re-read it and pay attention this time. It clearly states  the reason for the lack of details. There wasn't much coming from the brothers. If there was, it would have included it. What we are given is immensely informative --  far more than I imagined. And written in such a wonderful narrative. Thank you again.Mr.  McCullough, You did it again! 
SSkipper 27 days ago
Everything that was known about aeronautics was wrong. The Wright brothers started in a hole of misinformation and had to discover all of what they eventually learned the hard way—often by falling out of the sky. Beginning with gliders on the soft, sandy hills near Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, they studied the physics of lift. They abandoned that first glider to a local fisherman whose wife removed the fabric from the wings and made dresses for her daughters. Two years later the first powered Wright Flyer flew exactly four times. The longest flight was fifty-nine seconds. When the brothers began to publically demonstrate their machine in a field outside of Dayton, the United States government paid no attention. The first real notice they received was from France. Wilbur and Orville agreed that they should never fly together so that if one were killed, the other could continue their work. Another remarkable fact herein revealed is that the team did not solely consist of the Wright brothers, there was a Wright sister, Katherine, whose support played an invaluable part in the success of her siblings’ endeavor. Plus, they had a mechanical genius running the bicycle shop who built the Flyers’ engines. There is infinitely more to the story of first flight than we learned in school. David McCullough has a long reputation of being one of America’s greatest historians. In The Wright Brothers he has told the story of a uniquely American triumph. The insight into the singular characters of these obsessed inventors from Dayton, Ohio, is told in brilliant clear and clean prose that reads like a novel. The depth of Mr. McCullough’s research is, as always, phenomenal. The reader is drawn intimately into the race to build the first successful airplane. We share the determination, single-minded persistence and emotional backlash as the Wrights devote their nearly ascetic lives to the goal of flight. If the term ‘Must Read’ is a cliché, so be it. The Wright Brothers is definitely a must read.
doc_rock More than 1 year ago
Not up to McCullough's usual ability. No real effort given to the science that the brothers used for their creation that changed the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago