The Wright Stuff

A contraption hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian’s atrium, largely of wood, cloth, and wire, appearing somewhat like a mutant kite.

When I go there and look upon it, I genuflect; it is for me the closest thing in the world to a holy object.

THE photo - December 17, 1903.

THE photo – December 17, 1903.

It is the first airplane.


Reading David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers, was a similarly emotional experience. This is the essence of why I am so proud to be a member of the human species.

We arrived on this Earth with nothing, given nothing, but our bare hands, and the brains in our skulls. And with them we’ve made lives worth living.

imagesFor millennia, we gazed up at birds and yearned to fly. With that, fittingly, McCullough starts his book. The ancient dream of flight was not just for fun. Whenever I fly across the country in a morning, I look down upon the rugged terrain and think of the pioneers and what they suffered to make the same trip taking months in their wagons. And about John Adams (in another David McCullough book) and his many travels full of difficulties. Always keen to get on with things, Adams loved speed; if he could make 45 miles in a day, he felt he was flying.

But actual flight had seemed a vain quest, with top minds declaring it impossible. It was in fact a fiendishly difficult problem, which the Wright Brothers tackled in the best human way: methodically, intelligently, indefatigably, scientifically. (At one point in the book, I said to myself, “What they need is a wind tunnel.” And so they created one.)

Yet this pair of bicycle makers from Dayton, with no university education, and backing from no big institutions, weren’t entirely starting from scratch.Unknown-5 Isaac Newton said that if he saw farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. The Wright Brothers too benefited from the efforts of predecessors, notably Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute, but also centuries of effort in physics, mathematics, engineering, materials science, and so forth. Thus theirs was not the triumph of two Ohio brothers alone, it was a triumph of the whole human enterprise.

I take pride in the achievement not only as a human being but as an American. It exemplified not just the best human virtues but the best American ones. This is where those virtues can find their finest flower. Maybe it’s something in the water.

All this I ponder with a lump in my throat every time I board an airplane. Unknown-3And some people who were awed by that first flight on December 17, 1903, lived to see men fly to the Moon – carrying with them, as a tribute to the Wright Brothers, a small piece of their 1903 plane.

With that – again fittingly – McCullough ends his book.



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4 Responses to “The Wright Stuff”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Airplanes and Automobiles — a mixed bag in the long run and I have trouble with the back-slapping concept of “American virtues.”

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    If you don’t think “American virtues” deserve celebration, try living in Zimbabwe, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Congo, Syria . . . the list goes on, and on, and on.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    you know, you write pretty well.
    thanks for lighting a bit of my life.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, I’m glad to light.

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