Book Notes: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Reading Time: 20 minutes

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Publisher : Simon & Schuster (2016)

ISBN-13 : 978-1476728759

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

💡 3 Main Ideas

  • Having an all-encompassing personal sense of mission and purpose can help you to push through failure and disappointment, and persevere to achieve your goals. It enables you to persevere through various difficulties and challenges that might dissuade the less devoted. It took the Wright brothers nearly a decade of experimentation, setbacks, disappointments, but their passion and purpose enabled them to overcome mockery, disappointment and failure. It ultimately led them to become aviation pioneers.
  • It is important to instill in developing minds the freedom of mind, thought, expression, and experimentation that is essential to create a life-long passion for learning. Encouraging curiosity and open-mindedness, and letting people explore their interests encourages the exploration and experimentation that facilitates innovation.
  • Use setbacks and failures as an opportunity to learn and improve. Failure is not necessarily something to be discouraged by. It can provide multiple avenues of feedback that you can channel into eventual success. The Wrights made thousands of experiments with their gliders. They designed new machines and conducted thousands of tests, and were not discouraged by each “failure”. They rather used the setbacks as learning opportunities to improve both their skill and their machine, a method of experimentation that ultimately proved successful.

🔑 Five Key Takeaways

  • The importance of family and upbringing in nurturing curiosity and intellectual development. Despite not being a college graduate himself, Bishop Milton Wright filled the family house with books on a diverse range of topics, and encouraged his children to read widely and to explore their passions.

    Between formal education at school and informal education at home, it would seem he put more value on the latter. He was never overly concerned about his children’s attendance at school. If one or the other of them chose to miss a day or two for some project or interest he thought worthy, it was all right. And certainly he ranked reading as worthy…He wanted them to have open and receptive minds and to think for themselves. (17-18)

  • Play to your strengths. Although the Wright brothers worked as a collaborative team, there was an “unspoken understanding that Wilbur, the older by four years, was the senior member of the partnership, the big brother.” (6). Each brother had an important role to play in their lifelong partnership and mission to invent the first manned motor-powered flying machine.Wllbur was clearly a genius. In his youth, before a terrible accident, there had even been talk of him attending Yale. “Wilbur was more serious by nature, more studious and reflective. His memory of what he had seen and heard, and so much that he read, was astonishing.”  (6). It was Wilbur who came up with the concept of wind-warping that proved so critical to their experiments. However, Orville also was extremely talented and very mechanically inclined. “[Orville] was the more cheerful, the more optimistic and naturally entrepreneurial, and his remarkable mechanical ingenuity figured importantly in all their projects. (7).It’s important to be able to deploy each person in a partnership’s talents and abilities in the manner best suited for the overall success of a project.
  • Take considered risks. Being reckless and heedless leads to dangerous overconfidence. The experiments in flying their gliders and testing out new machines was extremely dangerous. However, the brothers were not reckless or thoughtless in their experimentation. They chose Kitty Hawk as a testing ground for their initial experiments, primarily because of the favorable winds, but because it also had sand dunes which would cushion the damage from an unplanned crash. They also chose to never fly together at the same time, so that if one brother were to crash and perish, the other brother would survive to carry on the mission. Per Wilbur, “The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.” (49)
  • Things always seem impossible until they are made possible. Afterwards, what was impossible now seems to be so simple in hindsight. As said in the New York Times, it was “a highly significant fact that, until the Wrights succeeded, all attempts at flight with heavier-than-air machines were dismal failures, but since they showed that the thing could be done everybody seems able to do it.” (261). And notable sculptor Gutzon Borglum (later to carve the faces on Mount Rushmore) who was present at Orville’s flight demonstration at Fort Myer observed, “And yet it was so simple…that one wondered why in the world human beings had not built one long before.” (191)
  • Think long-term when trying to achieve extraordinary goals. The Wright brothers had a clear and impressive goal – to develop the first motor-powered manned airplane. They understood that success would not be immediate, and were willing to sacrifice their time, efforts, energy, and financial resources into achieving this goal. Unlike Samuel Langley, who was primarily interested in fame and never recovered from the failure of his flying machine, the Wright brothers had a long-term vision. Because they had this goal, and this long-term vision, failures and setbacks did not dissuade them. As Wilbur Wright said, “A man who works for the immediate present and its immediate rewards is nothing but a fool.” (255)

✍️ Top Quotes

  • But it isn’t true to say we had no special advantages . . . the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity. (19) [Orville Wright]
  • The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks. (49) [Wilbur Wright]
  • The vulture’s needs are few, and his strength is moderate. And so what does he know? He knows how to rise, how to float aloft, to sweep the field with keen vision, to sail upon the wind without effort . . . he sails and spends no force, he never hurries, he uses the wind. (53) [Mouillard’s Empire of the Air.]
  • It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had the faith. (111)
  • The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power” (130) [Wright Brothers]

📒 Summary

The Wright Brothers is a non-fiction biographical examination of the life and work of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two brothers who are widely credited with inventing the first airplane.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were raised and lived in Dayton, Ohio, during an age of innovation and industrialization. Wilbur, the older of the two, was born on April 16, 1867. Orville was born on August 19, 1871. Throughout their lives, “they lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even “thought together,””, (5) according to Wilbur. And together, after a nearly 10-year odyssey beginning in 1899, the two brothers invented, built, and flew the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane.

In no way did any of this discourage or deter Wilbur or Orville Wright, any more than the fact that they had 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 real possibility that at some point … they could be killed.”(36)

They made the first successful sustained flight of a motor-operated, heavier-than-air flying machine with the Wright Flyer, on December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This occurred in front of a small private audience of five local men. Then, a few years later, on Saturday, August 8, 1908, Wilbur Wright performed the same feat in front of a large public audience, in Le Mans, a small town 125 miles southwest of Paris, France. It was the first full-scale public demonstration of motor-powered piloted flight.

“It was not merely a success, but a triumph . . . a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world.” (179) [Le Figaro]

The Wright Brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

Relentlessly curious and enterprising, the two brothers were fascinated by mechanical inventions from an early age. In this regard, they were encouraged by their deceased mother (who never destroyed any of their mechanical creations, and from whom they inherited their mechanical aptitude), and by the intellectual passions of their father, who bought them a small flying toy in their childhood, and encouraged curiosity and a love of reading. Their younger sister, Katharine was also a source of support and encouragement in their passion for aviation.

In high school, Orville began to operate a printing press. He was eventually joined in that enterprise by Wilbur. The two brothers then later turned to operating a bicycle repair and manufacturing shop, which subsequently became the source of funding for their aviation experiments. They also developed an interest in birds and birdwatching, which translated into a passion for flight.

The book is structured in three main parts. Part One describes the brothers’ temperament and personality and their family background. It describes the environment and experiences that shaped and drove them to acquire an all-consuming passion for flight. Part Two describes the scientific aviation experiments they undertook, beginning with their gliders, the challenges involved, the inventions they made, and the process of trial and error required to perfect their flying machine. The final part, Part Three, describes their successful demonstrations of the first powered flying machine in France and throughout Europe, their demonstrations in the US, and the implications of their success, for them personally, and for the world at large.

Who can predict what may occur in the field of aerial navigation now that the principle has actually been discovered and is before the world? Is it not possible that it will revolutionize human affairs in as radical a way as did the discovery of the use of steam? …In all this stupendous change going on before our very eyes the Wright brothers are the chief magicians. They are the leaders and pioneers. (230)  [James A. Edgerton, “The Monarchs of the Air,” Waco, Texas, Times-Herald]

💡 Extended Highlights

Part 1


  • They lived still at home with their father, an itinerant clergyman who was often away on church work, and their sister Katharine. (8)
  • They lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even “thought together,” Wilbur said. (5)
  • the brothers had tremendous energy, and working hard every day but Sunday was a way of life, and if not on the job then at home on “improvements.” (5)
  • unspoken understanding that Wilbur, the older by four years, was the senior member of the partnership, the big brother. (6)
  • They neither drank hard liquor nor smoked or gambled, and both remained, as their father liked to say, “independently” Republican. (8)
  • They were bachelors and by all signs intended to remain so. (8)
  • What the two had in common above all was unity of purpose and unyielding determination. They had set themselves on a “mission.” (8)

Wilbur Wright

  • Wilbur was more serious by nature, more studious and reflective. His memory of what he had seen and heard, and so much that he read, was astonishing. (6)
  • an exceptional public speaker and lucid writer, which seemed out of context for someone so often silent, and though reluctant to speak in public, when he did his remarks were invariably articulate, to the point, and quite often memorable. (6)
  • his vocabulary and use of language were of the highest order, due in large measure to standards long insisted upon by his father. It had proven an ability of utmost importance to his and his brother’s unprecedented accomplishments. (7)
  • In public gatherings, it was invariably Wilbur who attracted the most attention, even if he had little to say. (7)
  • “He inspires great confidence,” Berg wrote, “and I am sure he will be a capital Exhibit A.” (141)
  • Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur “never rattled,” as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about. (147)
  • “Wilbur Wright is the best example of strength of character that I have ever seen….In spite of the sarcastic remarks and the mockery, in spite of the traps set up from everywhere all these years, he has not faltered…He is sure of himself, of his genius, and he kept his secret. He had the desire to participate today to prove to the world he had not lied. (182) [Léon Delagrange, 1908, L’Illustration]

Orville Wright

  • Orville, too, greatly enjoyed writing, though in family correspondence primarily, and especially in letters to Katharine he did so with spirit and humor. (7)
  • Orville was the more gentle of the two. Though talkative and entertaining at home, often a tease, outside the house he was painfully shy, something inherited from their deceased mother, and refused to take any public role, leaving all that to Wilbur. (7)
  • the more cheerful, the more optimistic and naturally entrepreneurial, and his remarkable mechanical ingenuity figured importantly in all their projects. (7)
  • Where Wilbur was little bothered by what others might be thinking or saying, Orville was extremely sensitive to criticism or mockery of any kind. (7)
  • Orville had what were referred to within the family as his “peculiar spells,” times when, overtired or feeling put-upon, he could turn uncharacteristically moody and irritable. (7)

Katharine Wright

  • Younger than Orville by three years, she was bright, personable, highly opinionated, the only college graduate in the family, and of the three still at home, much the most sociable. (8)
  • After finishing at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1898, she had returned to Dayton to teach Latin at the new Steele High School, (8)
  • Being the nearest in age, she and Orville were particularly close. They had the same birthday, August 19, and they had both been born there in the same house. (8)

Other Siblings

  • 2 brothers older than the three at home:
  • Reuchlin Wright:
    • Married, and moved to a farm in Kansas.
  • Lorin Wright:
    • Lorin, a bookkeeper, with his wife, Netta, and their four children, Milton, Ivonette, Leontine, and Horace, lived just around the corner from 7 Hawthorn Street.

Mother, Susan Koerner Wright

  • Their deceased mother, Susan Koerner Wright, had been born in Virginia, the daughter of a German wagon maker, and brought west as a child. (9)
  • Highly intelligent, affectionate, and painfully shy….(9)
  • cheerful and keen-witted, and to her family a “regular genius” in that she could make anything, and toys especially, even a sled, “as good as a store kind (9)
  • She never would destroy one thing the boys were trying to make. Any little thing they left around in her way she picked up and put on a shelf in the kitchen. (9)
  • The mechanical aptitude of “the boys,” they all knew, came directly from their mother, quite as much as Orville’s shyness. (10)
  • She had died at home on July 4 [1889], at age fifty-eight, after an eight-year struggle with tuberculosis. (21)

Father, Bishop Milton Wright

  • Bishop Milton Wright was a devoted father abundantly supplied with strong opinions and words to the wise …. Born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1828 and had grown up with frontier ways and values. (10)
  • At age nineteen, Milton had joined the United Brethren Church in Christ, a Protestant denomination. He preached his first sermon at twenty-two and was ordained at twenty-four. (10)
    • Founded before the Civil War, the United Brethren Church was adamant about certain causes – the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and opposition to Freemasonry and its secretive ways – and so Milton Wright remained in his convictions, as all who knew him were aware. (10)
  • In a speech years later Wilbur would remark that if he were to give a young man advice on how to get ahead in life, he would say, “Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” (12)

The Importance of Reading & Self-Education

  • The Wright family book collection, however, was neither modest nor commonplace. Bishop Wright, a lifelong lover of books, heartily championed the limitless value of reading. (17)
  • Between formal education at school and informal education at home, it would seem he put more value on the latter. He was never overly concerned about his children’s attendance at school. If one or the other of them chose to miss a day or two for some project or interest he thought worthy, it was all right. And certainly he ranked reading as worthy. (17)
  • He wanted them to have open and receptive minds and to think for themselves. (18)
  • Included among the ecclesiastical works on his bedroom shelves were the writings of “The Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, whom the brothers and Katharine were encouraged to read.
    • “Every mind should be true to itself – should think, investigate and conclude for itself,” (18) [Robert Ingersoll]
  • “But it isn’t true to say we had no special advantages . . . the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” (19) [Orville Wright]


  • Bicycles had become the sensation of the time, a craze everywhere. (These were no longer the “high wheelers” of the 1870s and ’80s, but the so-called “safety bicycles,” with two wheels the same size.) (23)
  • The bicycle was proclaimed a boon to all mankind, a thing of beauty, good for the spirits, good for health and vitality, indeed one’s whole outlook on life.. (23)
  • Voices were raised in protest. Bicycles were proclaimed morally hazardous. Until now children and youth were unable to stray very far from home on foot. Now, one magazine warned, fifteen minutes could put them miles away. (23)
  • Because of bicycles, it was said, young people were not spending the time they should with books, and more seriously that suburban and country tours on bicycles were “not infrequently accompanied by seductions.” (23)
  • In the spring of 1893 Wilbur and Orville opened their own small bicycle business, the Wright Cycle Exchange, selling and repairing bicycles only a short walk from the house at 1005 West Third Street. (23)
  • In no time, such was business, they moved to larger quarters down the street to Number 1034 and renamed the enterprise the Wright Cycle Company. (23)
  • In 1895, their third year in business, they moved to a corner building at 22 South Williams Street, with a showroom on the street level and space for a machine shop upstairs. There, on the second floor, the brothers began making their own model bicycles, available to order. (26)
  • In 1897 the brothers moved the enterprise to a still larger and final location at 1127 West Third, which, like their previous business locations, was only a few blocks from home. (31)

Otto Lilienthal

  • On August 9, 1896, flying a favorite “No. 11” glider, [German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal] crashed again, falling from an altitude of fifty feet. He died of a broken spine in a Berlin hospital the following day at age forty-eight. (29)Otto Lilienthal Philosophy: Birds as the Key to Flight
  • The secret of “the art of flight” was to be found in the arched or vaulted wings of birds, by which they could ride the wind. (28)
  • “What we are seeking is the means of free motion in the air, in any direction.” (28)
  • And only by flying oneself could one achieve “proper insight” into all that was involved. To do this, one had to be on “intimate” terms with the wind. (28)
  • “It must not remain our desire only to acquire the art of the bird. It is our duty not to rest until we have attained a perfect scientific conception of the problem of flight.” (29) [Otto Lilienthal]

Wilbur’s Letter to the Smithsonian Institution, written on Tuesday, May 30, 1899

  • I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley’s and Pénaud’s machines,” (33)
  • “My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. . . . (33)
  • “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.” (33)

An Age of Innovation

  • the times were alive with invention, technical innovations, new ideas of every kind. (36)
  • George Eastman had introduced the “Kodak” box camera; Isaac Merritt Singer, the first electric sewing machine; the Otis Company had installed the world’s first elevator in a New York office building; the first safety razor, the first mousetrap, the first motor cars built in America—all in the dozen years since Orville started his print shop and Wilbur emerged from his spell of self-imposed isolation. (36)
  • At about this time, just prior to the turn of the century, according to the U.S. Patent Office, Dayton ranked first in the country relative to population in the creation of new patents.(37)
  • The large factories and mills of Dayton kept growing larger, producing railroad cars, cash registers, sewing machines, and gun barrels. (37)

Aviation as a Calling or Mission

  • For Wilbur, flight had become a “cause,” and [Louis Pierre] Mouillard, one of the great “missionaries” of the cause, “like a prophet crying in the wilderness, exhorting the world to repent of its unbelief in the possibility of human flight.” (37)
  • The works of Lilienthal and Mouillard, the brothers would attest, had “infected us with their own unquenchable enthusiasm and transformed idle curiosity into the active zeal of workers.” (39)
  • From their first meeting, [Joseph] Brandreth [journalist, Daily Mail] wrote, he had judged Wilbur Wright to be a fanatic. (181)
  • A writer for Le Figaro, Franz Reichel, fascinated with the flecks of gold in Wilbur’s eyes, came to much the same conclusion. “The flecks of gold,” wrote Reichel, “ignite a passionate flame because Wilbur Wright is a zealot. (181)
    • He and his brother made the conquest of the sky their existence. They needed this ambition and profound, almost religious, faith in order to deliberately accept their exile to the country of the dunes, far away from all. . . . Wilbur is phlegmatic but only in appearance. He is driven by a will of iron which animates him and drives him in his work. (182)

Bird Watching, Inspiration for Wing Warping

  • Wilbur had taken up bird-watching on a rugged stretch along the banks of the Miami River south of town called the Pinnacles….On Sundays he would ride off on his bicycle to spend considerable time there observing as Mouillard preached. (39)
  • They would design and build their own experimental glider-kite, drawing on much they had read, much they had observed about birds in flight, and, importantly, from considerable time thinking. (39)
  • Equilibrium (or balance in flight) was the all-important factor, the brothers understood. The difficulty was not to get into the air but to stay there, (39)
  • Wilbur’s observations of birds in flight had convinced him that birds used more “positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium” than that of a pilot trying to shift the center of gravity with his own body. (39)
  • It had occurred to him that a bird adjusted the tips of its wings so as to present the tip of one wing at a raised angle, the other at a lowered angle. Thus its balance was controlled by “utilizing dynamic reactions of the air instead of shifting weight.” (39)
  • The chief need was skill rather than machinery. …It was impossible to fly without both knowledge and skill—of this Wilbur was already certain—and skill came only from experience—experience in the air. (40)
  • The double wings of a biplane glider could be twisted or “warped,” to present the wing surfaces to the air at different angles or elevations, the same as the birds did. Were one wing to meet the wind at a greater angle than the other, it would give greater lift on that side and so the glider would bank and turn. (40)
  • With “wing warping,” or “wing twisting,” as it was sometimes referred to, Wilbur had already made an immensely important and altogether original advance toward their goal. (40)

Wilbur’s Speech “Some Aeronautical Experiments” to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago

  • The speech was “the Book of Genesis of the twentieth-century Bible of Aeronautics.” (69)
  • What was needed above all for success with a flying machine, he said, was the ability to ride with the wind, to balance and steer in the air. (70)
  • If one were looking for perfect safety, he said, one would do well to sit on the fence and watch the birds. “But if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” (70)

Calculations for Lift and Drag

  • With their former trust in the calculations of Lilienthal and Chanute shattered, the brothers set out that autumn of 1901 to crack the code of aeronautics themselves. (71)
  • Of primary importance was to find a way to achieve accurate measurements of the “lift” and “drag” of a wing’s surface, (72)
  • They devised and built a small-scale wind tunnel (72)
  • For testing apparatus inside the box, they used old hacksaw blades cut to different sizes with tin shears and hammered into a variety of shapes and thicknesses (72)
  • For nearly two months the brothers tested some thirty-eight wing surfaces, (72)
  • All the time and effort given to the wind tunnel tests, the work designing and building their third machine, and the latest modifications made at Kill Devil Hills had proven entirely successful. (85)
  • They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance. Now they had only to build a motor. (85)

December 17, 1903

  • The distance flown had been 120 feet, less than half the length of a football field. The total time airborne was approximately 12 seconds. (108)
  • Their flights that morning were the first ever in which a piloted machine took off under its own power into the air in full flight, sailed forward with no loss of speed, and landed at a point as high as that from which it started. (111)

Part 2

Success in Private Flights

  • A new 1905 Flyer III was under way, a machine “of practical utility,” as the Wrights would say. In fact, the Flyer III would prove to be the first practical airplane in history. (128)
  • It was at Huffman Prairie that summer and fall of 1905 that the brothers, by experiment and change, truly learned to fly. (130)
  • By the time the experiments ended, the brothers had made 105 “starts” at Huffman Prairie and thought it time now to put their creation, Flyer III, on the market. (132)

The Business of Invention

  • On March 23 [1903], the brothers applied for a patent on their flying machine, its wing-warping system, and rudder. (91)
  • brothers’ total expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903, including materials and travel to and from Kitty Hawk, came to a little less than $1,000, a sum paid entirely from the modest profits of their bicycle business. (111)
  • On May 22, 1906, the patent applied for in 1903 was at last issued on the Wright Flying Machine, patent number 821,393, (137)

Triumph at Le Mans on Saturday, August 8, 1908

  • Le Mans, a quiet, ancient town of some 65,000 people on the Sarthe River in the department of the Sarthe, 125 miles southwest of Paris. (166)
  • Finally, at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg, Bollée, and the others said quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.” (177)
  • In all he was in the air not quite 2 minutes and covered a distance of 2 miles. (177)

Part 3

Fort Myer, Virginia, September 1908

  • The first full-scale public performance of a Wright plane in the United States, (188)
  • By his estimate he had flown somewhat less than a mile at a speed of about 40 miles per hour. According to their contract with the army, the brothers were to receive $25,000 if the Flyer achieved 40 miles per hour in its speed test. (189)
  • The day after, Friday, September 4 [1908], Orville and the Flyer remained in the air more than four minutes, circling the parade ground five and a half times under perfect control, covering three miles with no mishap. (189)
  • In the days that followed, Orville provided one sensational performance after another, breaking one world record after another. (190)
  • In his brief time thus far at Fort Myer, Orville had set seven world records. (196)

Honors & Celebration

  • On May 20,[1909] it was announced that President Taft would soon be presenting the brothers several medals at the White House. (237)
  • [Orville] received honorary degrees from Harvard, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, and Oberlin College. In 1919 he received an Honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale, the university where once, nearly forty years before, Wilbur had hoped he might enroll. (269)
  • Of the numerous Wright monuments erected, the one dedicated to Wilbur at Le Mans in 1920 was the first. (270)
  • The largest, the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk at Kill Devil Hills, was dedicated in 1932 with Orville present to accept it on behalf of both Wilbur and himself. (270)
  • A Wilbur and Orville Wright memorial was created on Wright Brothers Hill overlooking Huffman Prairie, and in 1945 an aircraft carrier, the USS Wright, was launched. (270)
  • On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer. (270)

Dayton Daily News Editorial, 1909:

  • The old world was getting tired, it seemed, and needed help to whip it into action. There was beginning a great deal of talk about man’s no longer having the opportunities he once had of achieving greatness. (239)
  • Too many people were beginning to believe that all of the world’s problems had been solved. . . . This celebration throws all such idle talk to the winds. It crowns anew the efforts of mankind. It crushes for another hundred years the suspicion that all of the secrets of nature have been solved or that the avenues of hope have been closed to those who would win new worlds. (239)

Wednesday, May 25, 1910

  • The brothers had invited the Aeroplane Club of Dayton, as well as friends, neighbors, anyone interested, to come to Huffman Prairie to see Orville fly, and the crowd that came numbered two or three thousand. (262)
  • And all the Wrights—the Bishop, Wilbur, Katharine, Reuchlin, Lorin and his wife and children—were on hand (262)
  • In all the years they had been working together Wilbur and Orville had never once flown together, so if something were to go wrong and one of them should be killed, the other would live to carry on with the work. But on this day at Huffman Prairie, where they had developed the first practical flying machine ever, the two of them, seated side by side, took off into the air with Orville at the controls. (262)
  • It seemed their way of saying they had accomplished all they had set out to do and so at last saw no reason to postpone any longer enjoying together the thrill of flight. (262)
  • Now, at eighty-two, with the crowd cheering, he [Bishop Wright] walked out to the starting point, where Orville, without hesitation, asked him to climb aboard. …They took off, soaring over Huffman Prairie at about 350 feet for a good six minutes, during which the Bishop’s only words were, “Higher, Orville, higher!” (263)



  • “When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.” (263) [Wilbur Wright]
  • Of far the greatest importance to both—more than the money at stake—was to secure just and enduring credit for having invented the airplane….It was their reputation at stake and that mattered most. Their pride of achievement, quite understandably, was great. Eventually nine suits were brought by them, three brought against them. Over time they won every case in the American courts. (263)

Unintended Consequences

  • Orville lived to see, too, the horrific death and destruction wrought by the giant bombers of World War II (269)
    • We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong. . . . No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. (269)
    • I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses. (269)


  • Wilbur Wright died in his room at home at 7 Hawthorn Street at 3:15 in the morning, Thursday, May 30, 1912 [of typhoid fever]. He was 45 years old. (264)
    • A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died. (264) [ Bishop Milton Wright]
  • Bishop Milton Wright died at age 88 on April 3, 1917. (266)
  • Katharine died on March 3, 1929 [of pneumonia]. Her body was brought back to Dayton and buried with her father, mother, and Wilbur at Woodland Cemetery. (266)
  • [Orville] died of a heart attack at age 77 in Dayton’s Miami Valley Hospital at ten-thirty the evening of January 30, 1948, and was laid to rest at Woodland Cemetery with his mother, father, Wilbur, and Katharine. (270)

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The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

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