A pair of fearless brothers who conquered the sky
With the recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the world was once again reminded of the hazards and risks no matter how advanced the technology that are always present when man endeavors to fly. Coincidentally, 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright's astounding achievements in the tiny North Carolina coastal town of Kitty Hawk, where the Dayton, Ohio, proprietors of a bicycle shop repeatedly launched their homemade glider and eventually completed the first successful experiments in sustained flight. In To Conquer the Air, award-winning journalist James Tobin approaches this subject with dramatic flair, as he tells the story not only of the gifted, determined and humble team of brothers, but also of the other starry-eyed dreamers at the turn of the 20th century who bravely ventured into the previously little-explored field of aerodynamics. Chief among the latter was Samuel Langley, a highly respected astronomer, inventor and Smithsonian Institution executive, who, with the aid of government grants and important friends such as Alexander Graham Bell, spent years searching for the proper engine design for his own craft, which he called an aerodrome. But while Langley invested thousands of dollars and man-hours in continuously flawed mechanical plans and modifications, it was the Wrights working almost completely on their own, and at their own modest expense who methodically came to grips with essential yet elusive flight principles such as lift and drag, tirelessly hauling their wooden glider-prototype up and down the desolate sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, making one trial run after another. For the Wrights, flying began as simply a hobby inspired by routine observation of birds on the wing. Yet it grew into an all-consuming passion fueled by the quietly brilliant Wilbur (the clean-shaven one), who never went to college but combined voracious reading habits with high intelligence and an incredibly keen sense of scientific inquiry. It wasn't until the Wrights had a good grasp of unpowered flight that they tapped machinist Charley Taylor, yet another hometown Dayton boy, to provide them with a modest yet efficient engine that would turn the glider into a true flying machine. December 17, 1903, was the day that marked the first incident of officially legitimate motor-propelled flight, but in some ways that was only the beginning of the story. Unlike their more vocal and somewhat grandstanding competitors, the Wrights worked in isolation. Flying was one thing; proving to a skeptical world that they'd really done so was quite another. Friends and associates were both admiring and jealous; newspapermen weren't ready to believe; even whole nations, such as France, the birthplace of early balloon flight, remained caustically cynical. In the few years that followed, the Wrights eventually triumphed, as both Wilbur and Orville (the mustachioed one) built new machines and demonstrated them to an astounded even delirious public both abroad and in the U.S. Tobin's thoroughly focused text often reads like the treatment for what would certainly be a fascinating film, featuring colorful characters, contentious relationships, and dramatic events of discovery and disappointment. Tobin also provides readers with a warm and highly interesting profile of the staunchly Protestant Wright family, including schoolteacher sister Kate, who played a key role for her brothers as devoted helpmeet, as grounded in sensible everyday advice as her brothers were aloft in the sky. This is a magnificent book about magnificent men. Martin Brady is a freelance writer and theater critic in Nashville.