You may have read about the passing in August of the prolific historian and two-time Pulitzer-prize winner David McCullough. He wrote biographies of political and historical figures such as John Adams. Still, I was especially drawn to his works on major engineering feats such as the Panama Canal (“The Path Between the Seas”) and the Brooklyn Bridge (“The Great Bridge”).
His passing sparked me to re-read my favorite McCullough book, “The Wright Brothers.” It’s a well-written, relaxing, and admirable work that captures both the facts and the story in the smooth yet information-laden style at which he excelled. While there are many books about the famous brothers (Figure 1) and their creation of controlled, powered flight culminating in success in 1903, it’s the one I enjoyed the most and which made the most-lasting impression among the many I have read.
The book makes clear that the simplistic description of the brothers we often hear as “bicycle-mechanic brothers from Dayton who invented the first airplane” is factually correct but very misleading. Yes, they were bicycle mechanics, and that’s how they supported themselves, and their shop gave them a place to work. But some context is needed: n the last part of the 19th century, bicycling became a major craze. Bikes with two same-size wheels replaced the dangerous, hard-to-ride “high wheeler,” but bicycles were not standard, off-the-shelf items (Figure 2). Instead, they were hand-crafted and welded by these local “mechanics” who also needed skills and equipment to machine the brakes and many other parts.
So far, so good. But the brothers were much more than bicycle mechanics. As you read their story, you realize they were also engineers and scientists, as adept and skilled as any “professionals” at the time. They proposed hypotheses about what might work and what needed to be done, meticulously tested them, kept careful records, planned many research steps, and much more.
They even constructed and calibrated their instruments for measuring wind speed, pressure on the wings, lift coefficients, and more. When data for wing airfoil shape and resultant lift provided by experts at the Smithsonian Institution didn’t agree with their flight results, they built a 12-foot long, 2 × 2-foot wind tunnel (a rarity at the time) powered by a fan and a gas engine (no electric motors in their shop) to test dozens of wing-camber arrangements, taking data on the lift and drag via a hinged parallelogram mechanism (Figure 3). Their data showed the published numbers were off by at least a factor of two, so they used their results instead.
The next part of this assessment examines the Wright brothers’ theoretical and practical efforts.
David McCullough, “The Wright Brothers”
Wilbur Wright, presentation at Western Society of Engineers (1901), “Some Aeronautical Experiments”
NASA, “Wright Brothers Make History at Kitty Hawk”
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, “A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation”
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, “The 1901 Wright Wind Tunnel”
Project Gutenberg, “The Wright Brothers’ Engines and Their Design”