The Wright brothers’ flights at Kitty Hawk in December 1903 were the first powered flights in the history of the world. The brothers refined their airplanes for several years after, flying near their home in Dayton, Ohio, and returning to the Outer Banks.
Yet in those first five years of flight, Wilbur and Orville Wright mostly were ignored by the press, even in their hometown.
David McCullough describes how American newspapers missed one of the biggest stories ever in his new book, “The Wright Brothers.”
Kitty Hawk was remote, but Dayton was not. When an editor at the Dayton Daily News later was asked why his paper didn’t report on the momentous accomplishment in a pasture eight miles northeast of town, McCullough reports the editor said, “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”
Word had reached the Daily News that the Wrights were flying at nearby Huffman Prairie, but the news staff did not believe the stories, nor did it venture to the site, which was reachable by trolley for 5 cents. Neither was the U.S. government interested in the Wrights; it was financing its own project, which was a humiliating failure.
“There was a human fixation that man can’t fly and anybody who pretends that man can fly is a crackpot,” McCullough told me Thursday night, before he spoke to a sold-out crowd at Fletcher Theater in downtown Raleigh.
McCullough is one of the most accomplished nonfiction writers of our time. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice – in 1993 for his biography of Harry Truman and in 2002 for his biography of John Adams. More than 10 million copies of his books are in print.
At 81 (he turns 82 in July), he’s going strong. He was dressed sharply in a blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt and plaid tie. He spoke to the crowd without notes, standing behind the lectern for more than an hour. He and his wife of 60 years, Rosalee, were on their way to Kitty Hawk for the weekend.
When the Wrights first flew in North Carolina, some newspapers published stories that largely were made up. Then interest faded. The first authoritative story written on the Wright brothers was published in 1905 in, of all places, the trade journal Gleanings in Bee Culture.
The writer, Amos Root of Ohio, offered the story free to the prestigious Scientific American, which turned up its nose.
Instead, a year later Scientific American cast doubt on whether the Wrights were flying, sniffing: “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter…would not have ascertained all about them and published…long ago?”
McCullough’s narratives often focus on the character of his subjects. He spoke in Raleigh of his admiration for the Wright brothers, who owned a bicycle shop. They did not attend college, had little money and had no benefactor.
But they were smart, industrious and determined. McCullough said in many ways the Wright brothers’ personal characteristics reminded him of President Harry Truman, another Midwesterner from a humble background.
In his biography, McCullough said Truman’s personal style resonated with the American people because he stood for common sense and common decency. McCullough said Truman had six core beliefs: Work hard. Do your best. Speak the truth. Assume no airs. Trust in God. Have no fear.
McCullough could have said the same about the Wright brothers. They believed in themselves and their mission when almost no one else did.
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