A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright
by Tom D. Crouch; W. W. Norton & Company; 606 pages.
When Orville Wright was buried in Dayton, Ohio, in 1948, four jet fighters swooped low over the cemetery and dipped their wings in honor of the first man ever to fly. Forty-five years earlier above the windswept hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, heavier-than-air flight began when Orville spent twelve seconds aloft in the wood-and-cloth aircraft he had built with his brother Wilbur. Tom Crouch’s absorbing new biography of the Wright brothers explains how two bicycle makers from Dayton managed to succeed where others with far greater technical credentials and a lot more money had failed.
The Bishop’s Boys provides a fascinating chronicle of the process of invention, as well as a rich portrait of an extraordinarily close-knit family, headed by the imposing Bishop Milton Wright, a leader of the Protestant United Brethren Church. Bishop Wright was an uncompromising and litigious man; in 1889 he forced a national schism within his church. His sons inherited those qualities. They spent years mired in patent suits against rival airplane builders, most notably the aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.
A strict and loving father, Milton Wright also sparked Wilbur and Orville’s interest in flight in 1878, when he bought the boys a rubber bandpowered toy helicopter designed by the French aeronautical experimenter Alphonse Penaud. The brothers were CSI enthralled. “We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully,” Orville recalled decades later. “But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale it failed to work so well.”
For the adult Wright brothers aeronautics began as something of a sophisticated hobby that occupied the winter months, when sales of bicycles declined. Despite a lack of formal technical training, they were true engineers, painstakingly methodical and almost inhumanly patient, encountering frequent failures and occasional success and facing “the grit and wind of each new day with a clean tie and fresh celluloid collar.” Much of their drive came from their clergyman father, who in 1910, at the age of eightyone, flew in a plane piloted by Orville above an Ohio prairie. Orville feared the experience might unnerve the old clergyman, but the bishop “shouted above the combined roar of engine, propellers, and slipstream: ‘Higher, Orville. Higher!’”