Wilbur and Orville: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by Fred Howard (Knopf: $24.95; 530 pp., illustrated)
In 1953, in a rich, pertinent, scholastic accessory to the 50th anniversary of powered flight, the Aeronautics Division of the Library of Congress published: “The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright.”
Overpriced in a market worn thin by previous biographies, the two-volume series crashed soon after takeoff.
Frank Howard, the technical transcriber of the division’s editing team, was saddened by this disinterest in the anatomy of a spectacular creation--and in the actual words, by the very descriptions of the creators.
One day, he promised, he would retell the epoch of the Wright brothers, resculpt their papers with warmth, with narrative and perspective and broad appeal.
In “Wilbur and Orville,” Howard has rounded just those bases with a solid biography of disciplined chronology, fair to all arguments and accurate to all sides.
It carries none of the ebullience of “Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers” (where the authors described the Wrights as miracle makers) published in 1979, nor does it offer the narrow fascination of “No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers” (which revealed the presence of a British spying and industrial espionage in the Kitty Hawk camp) in 1983.
What is here is the broad context of those breathless, furtive and often deceitful decades between 1890 and 1910, when Orville and Wilbur were merely two players among hundreds trying and erring aboard kites, darts and crude gliders they hoped would unwrap the science of powered flight.
There was Octave Chanute--the Wrights’ mentor who would become their senior student--and his paper tube gliders with oscillating wings. Alexander Graham Bell and Glenn Curtiss teamed to explore tetrahedral kites. Samuel Langley first experimented with steam-powered models. Balloonists in Britain. Air ship believers in France and Germany.
Also, explains Howard, “the sometimes self-deluded experimenters, mountebanks and outright fakers and liars . . . not only add a certain piquancy to the story but furnish a backdrop against which the accomplishments of the Wright brothers stand out bold and clear.” And such accomplishments.
In 1901, when the competition was still stumbling with balance and bulk, the Wrights had developed power to weight ratios; were comparing angles of incidence; correcting lift and drag data widely considered the Gospel according to the great Otto Lilienthal; knew the movement of pressure on an airfoil section; were perfecting ailerons, elevators and rudders for harnessing the three axes of flight . . . and by combining an anemometer, stop watch and revolution counter, even built a side triumph: the world’s first automatic flight data recorder.
Much of this is familiar. So is Howard’s reminder that the Wrights, albeit self-schooled, were intuitive engineers and aerodynamicists far from being meddling bicycle mechanics who lucked out.
He details, once more, their early reluctance to demonstrate the aft-and-fore Wright Flyer in the belief that industrial secrecy was better business than a market flooded with built-alikes.
He touches, of course, on Orville’s 28-year feud (and it flutters, posthumously, to this day in both camps) with the Smithsonian over who came first: The Wrights or Langley?
The full value of the book, however, is that its author picks up and goes forward with the Wrights just about where every other biographer left them.
That was in 1909. France was building Wright Flyers and the U.S. Army had accepted its first flying machine. Bleriot had flown across the English Channel. Curtiss was only a year away from dropping dummy bombs on the shape of a battleship, and most Wright books end there.
But for the bachelor brothers, the second decade of the 20th Century brought as much anger, disturbance and frustration as either suffered in their four years of travail from Dayton to Kitty Hawk.
There was a bitter patent war, wing warping versus ailerons, Wrights versus Curtiss, where the Wrights were vilified as profit mongers out to strangle the development of aviation.
Chanute and the brother--together as friends and engineering sounding boards since 1900--went separate ways in bitter arguing over wing-warping credits for the first flight.
In 1911, exhibitions were the commerce of aviation. But death became the bottom line. The Wright team withdrew from the business when most of its pilots were killed in public crashes.
Author Howard picks his way delicately through these later years with soft humor and an obvious understanding of the family unit that pivoted on the brothers and their work.
We feel the obvious courage of these men who, despite numerous crashes, despite their constant taunting of the unknown, continued to fly and progress. We learn much of the reticence that preserved their gentle manliness despite the crass, sophisticated world of aviation they had crafted.
Wilbur died from typhoid in 1912 at age 45.
Orville died from a heart attack in 1948 at age 77.
They remain legends who, despite the confusion of unsought controversies and public opinions bent by adulation, jealousy, envy, bad journalism, avarice, awe and ignorance, will always be commemorated for a quite uncluttered feat.
It was, said a precise Orville in a 1913 magazine article, “the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”