NB: This review was originally posted at my professional blog, In Another Place.
Historian David McCullough has discovered the “secret sauce” of writing history for non-historians. He presents history first and foremost as a story of people, often ordinary, who go on to do extraordinary things or live through extraordinary events.
The Wright Brothers is no exception: we learn a bit their childhoods, just enough to let us understand their close knit family and community in Dayton, Ohio. But pretty quickly we are in the workshop and on the beach watching as they create their flying machine.
For schools diving into makerspaces, the story of the Wright brothers is an important one: In a time of amazing innovation, “aerial navigation” was the last untapped frontier with many people, both laymen and leaders, simply believing that man was not meant to fly. Yet, two bicycle makers from Ohio had a vision that played out into a lifelong passion. They understood that there would be failure so did not let it deter them but moved ahead step by step. I like to imagine them wandering the shore line of the Outer Banks where I have spent many summers watching the gulls and gannets but not, as I might, just to admire them, but to consider what lessons they could learn from the birds.
There is a clear lesson for all of us who wish to encourage the habits of thought that lead to the kind of creative and critical thinking exhibited by the Wright Brothers. McCullough writes:
Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. “But it isn’t true,” Orville responded emphatically, “to say we had no special advantages…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” (p. 18).
This grainy video of the record setting flight in 1909 is available from the National Archives and is in the public domain. The plane itself is on display at the National Air and Space Museum and you can learn more about the early flights at their website.