"The Wright Brothers", by David McCullough

Brian Gongol

One-paragraph review: The story everyone "knows" about the Wright Brothers is awfully one-dimensional: A couple of brothers from Ohio ran a bicycle shop, caught the aviation bug, and built the first airplane. That story does little to no justice to the big picture of their discovery, which wasn't just something a couple of hacks stumbled upon. No, says this definitive work on the matter: The Wright Brothers deserve credit as serious, pragmatic, and deliberate engineers who worked their way through a long path of careful research and leading-edge experiments before applying sophisticated technical skills to the problem of powered flight. Lost in the textbook coverage of the Wright story are details brought to life in David McCullough's book. The brothers both remained lifelong bachelors, and depended heavily upon their sister at home and in their work. The experiments at Kitty Hawk were no mere larks, but were months-long periods of experimentation -- and it was no fluke that there were photographs of thei r early flights; photography was a key element of their research. The brothers deserve great credit for their development of flight controls, but their employee Charlie Taylor deserves credit for developing an aluminum engine (from scratch) with a power-to-weight ratio that permitted the Wrights to make the leap from gliding to powered flight. Perhaps most importantly, their work to develop an airplane wasn't a hobby -- the Wright Brothers were out to make money with a commercial product. The book is dense with details -- exhaustively so -- which makes it ideal for listening as an audiobook.

Verdict: A vibrant portrait of one of the great technological successes that is far more engrossing in detail than in its usual abbreviated portrayal in the history books.