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On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright, in a plane he designed with his brother Wilbur, becomes the first person to fly. For many of us, this is where the story of the Wright brothers begins and ends. But Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough says there’s so much more to what the two accomplished. By examining a trove of private letters, diaries and notebooks, McCullough finds the brothers extraordinary intelligent, intensely driven, loyal to their family and completely self-made. David McCullough gives us more insight into the men who taught the world to fly.
- David McCullough Author and historian.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. As David McCullough writes in his new book, Wilbur and Orville Wright had no college education, no formal training, no experience working with anyone but themselves. They had no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies. How they managed to changed the course of history anyway is a topic of his new book, "The Wright Brothers."
MS. SUSAN PAGEDavid McCullough is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian. He joins me in the studio today. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAVID MCCULLOUGHThank you very much. Glad to be back.
PAGEI should say welcome back because you, of course, have been on the show many times before and it's a pleasure to have you here. We're gonna invite our listeners to join our conversation a little later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or Twitter and leave a comment. So why "The Wright Brothers," why write this book?
MCCULLOUGHI knew next to nothing about them. I knew what most all of us receive quickly in about a 10 minute flash of light on the subject in high school history or whatever. And when I began to read about them, because I was surprised and fascinated by the fact that they had a very major part of their story take place in France, I couldn't get over how much there was to them individually and as a unit, as it were, and what a really extraordinary and, I think, inspiring human story they are and very, very representative of something particularly and, I think, proudly American.
PAGEWhat is American about this pair of brothers?
MCCULLOUGHWell, they had an objective, a purpose, which they considered to be, and this sounds like a bad pun, a high purpose and they set their minds to achieve it. And to do it with no sense that there was any reason why they couldn't do it, because, as you just read, they didn't have any money, they didn't have any political contacts, they didn't have a great university or a foundation behind them, but they thought they could figure out what is -- how it is that birds can soar. Not just fly, but soar.
MCCULLOUGHBirds that get up there and just hang in the air for what seems hours at a time in some cases and those birds are riding the wind. They're not flapping their wings. They're not using any power of their own, but they know how to ride with the wind the way people know how to ride with the -- on the water. And the big question was how do they do that? And they had been making bicycles and selling bicycles in their little show in Dayton, Ohio, and, of course, bicycling is about balance, equilibrium.
MCCULLOUGHAnd the other very important fact that they realized is that it isn't enough just to invent theoretically or invent in fact a machine that might fly on its own power, but to know how to do it, to know how to fly just as if you made a bicycle, you can't just say here's the bicycle, but you don't know how to ride it. And the only way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride the bicycle. Now, Wilbur Wright used the example if you were trying to train an unruly horse, a wild horse, there were two approaches.
MCCULLOUGHOne, is you could sit on the fence and take notes and then after your notes are complete, retire to a comfortable chair and write a paper on how to tame a wild horse. The other way to do it is to get on the horse and ride it. So they didn't just invent the airplane. They learned, as no one ever knew before, how to fly it and that means riding with the wind and adjusting having wings that will do the necessary adjustments that will make it possible to stay in the air.
PAGEAnd, of course, humans have been trying for centuries to figure out how this worked. We have Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings, but they were...
MCCULLOUGHYes, some of the greatest minds of all time.
PAGEAnd yet somehow, these two brothers from Dayton figured out what had eluded everyone who came before them.
MCCULLOUGHYes, it's phenomenal. But they were brilliant. This is very important. I think Wilbur, unquestionably was a genius and while Orville was very inventive and mechanically clever, he wasn't -- he didn't have the mind that Wilbur did. And Wilbur was the leader. He was the big brother, the older by four, almost five years. And Wilbur could've done anything and in any field. He was all set to go to Yale and he thought he wanted to be a teacher or a professor, but he got hit in the teeth with a hockey stick in a hockey game when he was about 18 that knocked out all of his front teeth, upper front teeth, left him in terrible pain and he slipped into a strange and unfortunate, but it turns out very fortunate for all of us, period where he imposed a seclusion on himself, isolation at home.
MCCULLOUGHAnd during that period, it was during that period that he began to really read and read with not just energy and concentration, but read about everything. In a way, he got his own liberal arts education on his own at home and with an intensity that he probably wouldn't have achieved had he gone to college because there'd be so many other things going on.
MCCULLOUGHAnd the big question was, who hit him in the teeth? And I'm glad to say, I happened to find out.
PAGEAnd quite a notorious figure.
MCCULLOUGHIt turned out he was the neighborhood bully. He was a little bit younger than Wilbur and he was the son of a house painter, very poor family, and he later -- he worked as a clerk in a drug store. And he had terrible rotting teeth and extreme pain and the druggist, feeling sorry for him, gave him what was the only pain reliever of the time which was cocaine. And perfectly legal, cocaine pills, and he became a drug addict. He then became an alcoholic. He later became one of the most notorious murderers in the history of Ohio.
MCCULLOUGHAnd he killed his mother, his father, his brother and an estimated 12 other people before they finally executed him. And this, to me, is also something very important to know about the story of the Wright brothers because if you just see the house that they grew up in and know the unity of the family and the admirable integrity and character of the father and the mother and the brothers, it begins to have a certain Norman Rockwall, "Saturday Evening Post" cover quality to it.
MCCULLOUGHBut yet, just around the corner was this tragic boy, life, in the same neighborhood and the fact that this terrible blow hit him was the reason he took a different path in life and consequently we have the airplane. If you put that in a novel, people say, well, that wouldn't have happened. It did happen.
PAGEThe brothers, have you said, had this very wonderful family, but poor. They didn't have running water. They didn't have electricity growing up.
MCCULLOUGHThey didn't have indoor plumbing. They had no telephone, not of that. But they had books, books aplenty, and the father insisted that they read and read about everything. And he insisted that they learn how to use the English language. He insisted that their handwriting be not only legible, but that their vocabulary was wide and their use of verbs and adjectives and syntax, all that, it was as if they were having a magnificent English professor all through their lives.
MCCULLOUGHAnd this played a huge part in the success that they had because they had no trouble expressing themselves effectively and gaining the respect of people eventually that mattered so much, particularly when they went to France. The other thing is that they were very interested in art, in architecture. They each played a musical instrument. They read history. They wrote marvelous letters whenever they were away, describing what was up and what they felt and how they were doing and whether they were down or enthusiastic or optimistic.
MCCULLOUGHAnd so those letters, just the private correspondence, not counting the professional correspondence, number in excess of 1,000 and they're all in the Library of Congress and so you can get into their lives and the life of their sister whose importance cannot be overestimated.
PAGEYes, historians would wish that everyone would write letters like that to this day, although often...
PAGE...often not the case. David McCullough, his new book is called, "The Wright Brothers." He's the author and historian. He's received the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award twice. We're gonna take a short break and when we come back, we'll talk more about how Dayton turns out to be a center of innovation during this period of time and how the Wright brothers came to invent the airplane.
PAGEAnd we'll take you calls and questions, our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, David McCullough talking about his new book. It's titled "The Wright Brothers." And shortly we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls and questions, and read your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, first I have to ask you, we've gotten a couple emails that talk about the states involved with the Wright Brothers. Here's one from Caroline, who writes, "I was born in North Carolina, but raised in Dayton. I've always been proud of both states' connection to the Wright Brothers. The brothers may have gotten off the ground in North Carolina, but it was in a cow pasture just outside Dayton where they really learned to fly."
PAGEBut before you address her comment, here's another one from Michael who writes us from Cleveland. He writes, "Can Mr. McCullough help us Ohioans put an end to the claim that North Carolina makes on its license plates, First in Flight? They may have had the wind and the soft sand, but Ohio had the plane." So which state can really claim this?
MCCULLOUGHBoth of them can, very legitimately and justly so. What one of your listeners wrote that the plane that could take off and fly through the air was first shown, developed, demonstrated at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But they were just beginning because they had to develop a plane they could completely control, in order to have a practical airplane. And the practical airplane didn't come until 1905 in Dayton, in the cow pasture eight miles out of town, notice Huffman Prairie. And when they develop a plane they could bank and turn, fly in a figure eight, fly in a circle, go up, go down, land, take off safely, they knew they had it.
MCCULLOUGHAnd even then the world was not willing to say that indeed man could fly. And newspaper people, I'm sorry to tell you, wouldn't even ride the eight miles out of town to see what was going on, literally under their noses. And because it was understood that man can't fly and these are a couple of crackpots.
PAGEYou know, reporters do not come off well in this story for their obstinance in refusing to believe what was right before their eyes. And it was not in the newspapers that finally broke the story in a serious way or Scientific American, it was in a publication called "Gleanings in Bee Culture," which first wrote about this.
MCCULLOUGHIt's one of the -- it's an amazing story. Little guy named Amos Root who made equipment for beekeepers and made quite a sizeable sum of money, but who was interested in everything. Got wind, heard about these brothers over in Dayton. He was in Ohio, up in Northeastern Ohio. And he went down to see what they were doing. And saw that this was it, Craig Curley (sp?) . And he wrote a superb article describing the flight that he saw. It wasn't only very descriptive, it was very accurate, and of considerable length.
MCCULLOUGHThe first, full, accurate, fair reporting of this phenomenon that changed history was written by a beekeeper, published in his little newspaper. He then sent it to Scientific American saying you're free to publish this at no charge, and they just dismissed it as the writings of some whacko out in Ohio. The arrogance, the superiority of those who were in the know, again and again, in the government, in journalism, was almost comical.
MCCULLOUGHOur federal government people wouldn't even get on the train and ride out and take a look, when the Wright's offered to bring their machine to Washington to demonstrate. No, not interested. They had their door slammed in their face about three or four times, and they really -- and then a delegation of French officers from Paris, from France showed up in Dayton. Liked what they were able to determine, and said, you bring your plane over to France, demonstrate for us in public what you can do, and we'll buy your machine.
PAGEAnd they were...
MCCULLOUGHAnd that's what he did.
PAGE...Wilbur was hailed as a hero when he went to France.
MCCULLOUGHBiggest hero, most popular American in France since Benjamin Franklin. They loved him. They adored them. And the fact that he spoke no French seemed to make him even more popular because he was so American. They wanted the American to act like an American. And his modesty, his attention to hard work, his honesty, his character. This is largely a story about character. Character counts again and again and again. And sometimes you wonder how were they able to do it.
MCCULLOUGHWhen finally they were asked to come and demonstrate the machine out here at Fort Myer for the government, and Orville put on the demonstrations, and Wilbur was assisting him as his guy on the ground, thousands of big shots from the government, from the Cabinet, from the different departments all flooded went across the river, across the Potomac, Fort Myer, to see the phenomenon with their own eyes. And if the wind wasn't right, it wasn't just right, they wouldn't fly. Didn't bother them in the slightest that these people had been kept waiting for hours and then they never flew.
MCCULLOUGHBut that wasn't why they were in it. They weren't in it to become famous or to become rich. They were in it to do it right. And their attention to detail and their -- they not only didn't like the limelight, they tried to avoid it whenever possible. But eventually they did fly. They broke every record that had ever been broken, including many of their own right over here. And it was a thrilling thing until Orville had a terrible crash in which a young Army officer named Selfridge was killed, the first fatality in aviation ever, right here across the river.
MCCULLOUGHBut Orville too was so badly damaged, broken leg and ribs and psychologically damaged, that it looked doubtful he would ever fly again, maybe ever even walk again. And that was when his sister, Katharine, who was a high school Latin teacher in Dayton told her principal that she wanted an indefinite leave of absence, packed her bag, and within hours was on the first train out of Dayton to Washington. Came here and stayed with him out at the Fort Myer Hospital night and day and got him through it. She was...
PAGEShe was her own remarkable figure...
MCCULLOUGH...she was phenomenal.
MCCULLOUGHYes, she was.
PAGE...of this remarkable family, yeah.
MCCULLOUGHAnd very bright and very funny.
PAGEDavid has sent us a Tweet saying, "Little seems to be made of their bravery and courage. Taking to the air is dangerous." Did they have a sense that they were putting themselves in peril here?
MCCULLOUGHOh, absolutely. Every time they went up, and they would go up 50 to 100 times in a year, they had a very good chance of being killed. And for that reason, they never flew together. They could take other people up. It was a two-man plane, two women, man and woman plane when Katharine went up with Wilbur in France. But they never went -- the two brothers went up together because if one got killed, the other would be still alive to carry on with the mission.
PAGEIs there something distinctly American about the Wright Brothers?
MCCULLOUGHI feel very strongly, yes. Very distinctly American. Midwestern American at that time. I saw -- kept feeling it as I was writing this book. Clear linkages or similarities to Harry Truman. Truman never went to college, they never went to college. Truman faced adversity again and again in his life, as did they. Truman failed many times in many ways, but never let that defeat him or discourage him completely. So did they. I think how you handle failure, how you handle a sudden unexpected blow that knocks you down is crucial, not only to leadership, but to success.
MCCULLOUGHSome people just let it defeat them, or they lie there and whine and blame it on other people or lapse into self-pity further. They never gave up. Just as Harry Truman never gave up. Just as in 1948 when he ran against Dewey and everybody was saying he didn't have a chance. That didn't stop him. Everybody, you can't possibly fly. That didn't stop them. And their honesty, absolute honesty, and their refusal to ever preen and prance around because they think they're so nifty. They stay to themselves just as Truman did.
PAGELet's go to Wellington, Colo. and take a caller. This caller is Jim. Jim, thank you so much for joining us.
JIMHi, thank you for taking my call. It's a pleasure to meet you. Mr. McCullough, I just finished reading your book yesterday. And actually I listened to it on audio, and you did an excellent job in my opinion. I'm a former Air Force test pilot from the '70s, a long time ago. And I remember going through all the training and stuff for a year learning equations and motions and penostatic (sp?) systems and, oh, the list goes on and on. And here's these two guys, the first test pilots who in the early 1900s did what they did basically self-taught. And I want to take up on your other comment made about courage and strutting around.
JIMYou know, test pilots tend to do that, but not these guys. And these guys were the first test pilots. And I was just so impressed with the courage that they demonstrated and showed for nine or ten years during the development of the latest models of their airplane. And thank you again for writing this excellent book.
MCCULLOUGHWell, thank you for what you've just said. You just said something I've never thought of myself and never heard anyone say. They were test pilots. They were the first test pilots. And that's extremely important because they're learning all the time. They're trying themselves out, not just the machine. And their courage is to me at time almost unfathomable. And when they're besieged by the mosquitoes down at Kitty Hawk, almost eaten alive, literally, and yet they will not leave. I would've gotten the hell out of there as fast as I could. And I think most everybody else would too. It was pure torture, but they would not give up.
MCCULLOUGHAnd the odd thing is that in after years or even after months, they would talk about that time on Kitty Hawk as the best time of their lives, because they were in the midst of the work. Their love of work, their passion for their work, their joy in their work. There's a great lesson to be learned for all of us in that.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, you know, at least initially when they went to Kitty Hawk the locals thought they were nuts, right?
MCCULLOUGHIndeed they did. One of my favorite moments in the whole story is the description that one of the local gentleman of Kitty Hawk, who are almost all fishermen or lifeguards or something like that. And it was a very primitive way of life there. There was no bridge over to the Outer Banks and no roads and relatively few people. And for the -- this is from the book. For the local citizens, the two brothers from Ohio were extremely hard to figure. One named John T. Daniels, known as John T. to distinguish him from his father who was also John Daniels, said later, we couldn't help thinking they were just a pair of nuts.
MCCULLOUGHThey'd stand on the beach for hours at a time just looking at the gulls flying, soaring, dipping. Gannets, the giant seabirds with a wingspread of five to six feet, seemed their particular interest. They would watch the Gannets and imitate the movements of their wings with their arms and hands. They could imitate every movement of the wings of those Gannets. We thought they were crazy. But we just had to admire the way they could move their arms this way and that and bend their elbows and wrist bones. And down and up and which way just like the Gannets.
MCCULLOUGHLearning the secrets of flight from a bird, Orville Wright would later say, was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. There it is. That's it. They realized, excuse me, but there are these creatures that can fly, that can soar, that can stay up there for hours just riding with the wind. The ways of the wind, once they figured out the ways of the wind, they knew they had it.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Tim who's calling us from St. Louis. Tim, thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
TIMThanks for taking my call. Mr. McCullough, I've read other of you works and you're truly an extraordinary literary figure. I really appreciate your work. I've not had a chance to read this new work, but I definitely will because, like the previous caller, I'm an aviator myself. And my first stick time started at 17 and has been going for 30 plus years. I'm also a -- I also have a very keen interest in pioneer aviation. Now, one thing that -- as I said, I have not read your book yet, but one thing I'm hoping is addressed in it is the fact that Philippine (word?) by Alberto Santos-Dumont actually was the truly first heavier than air powered aircraft to fly. And it flew a longer distance than the Wright flyer.
TIMHowever, since it was an experimental and developmental aircraft and was not commercially pursued by the Wrights and by governments, Alberto Santos-Dumont went back to his work on lighter than aircraft. The other thing that -- and this is in no way defending the government or the present ambivalence towards the Wrights, but right there on the Potomac not long before they had gone through the absolute flop of the partially government funded project of Samuel Langley's air drum.
PAGEAll right. Tim, thanks so much for your call.
MCCULLOUGHWell, first of all, I dispute your point that the first to fly was the Brazilian. And when the Wright's -- when Wilbur Wright came to France to demonstrate the 1905 flyer at Le Mans, all the French aviators said that the Wright Brothers were way ahead of them. And not only in the machine itself, but in their ability to fly the machine. And the Langley project, which cost some $70,000, which was a very large sum of money in that day, was a total flop. And I think part of the -- what has to be understood about people like Langley and Octave Chanute is they had their theories about flight and what kind of machine to make, but they never, either one of them, ever considered trying to fly the machine. So they would have somebody else do that.
MCCULLOUGHThe Langley project unfortunately deterred the government from taking a serious interest in the Wrights because they really wasted so much money on something that didn't work at all.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with David McCullough about his new book "The Wright Brothers." We'll take your calls. We'll read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with David McCullough about his new book. It's titled, "The Wright Brothers." You write in your book that Dayton, at that time in particular, was a real center of innovation and experimentation. Tell us about that.
MCCULLOUGHIt was a little bit like the Silicon Valley of today, in that -- well, most of the industrial cities of the country were 'cause all kinds of new things were coming into being. The telephone, the light bulb, the elevator, it -- the cash register. And it was a very positive time. The country -- there was no -- we weren't at war. We were about to build the Panama Canal. We had no national debt. We had a national surplus.
MCCULLOUGHAnd to have been in Dayton, Ohio, if you were a mechanical -- mechanically inclined or interested in a mechanical or industrial or scientific innovation, was to be in the hot bed of where it was all happening. So they were -- it was a renaissance time, if you will. I think that while history is comprised to a very large extent to politics and war, that isn't the whole of it. And we have to understand what was happening in innovation of all kinds, including medicine and including advances in technology of all -- of a huge variety of areas.
MCCULLOUGHAnd it's intellectual exercise. And there was the sense that we can do it. There was a -- it was a spirit that was alive in the country. And rightly so because we really were rolling. And, of course, the horrors of -- and the tragedy of World War I were all over the horizon. Nobody knew that was coming. And the idea that this brilliant invention would be used for such horrific destruction in two World Wars would -- it never entered the heads of the Wright brothers. Wilbur died before World War I. He died in 1912, unfortunately.
MCCULLOUGHMuch too early. Died of typhoid fever, bad water. We don't even think about bad water today, but that was part of life then. And -- but Orville did live to see two wars and felt terrible about it and took it very much to heart. But he also rationalized -- and I think quite fairly and understandably, that it was as if the invention of fire, was that good or was it bad? Well, of course it was very good in many ways. And it was very bad in many ways. It depends on how you used it. And -- but he also lived to see Lindbergh fly the Atlantic.
MCCULLOUGHHe lived to see the advent of jet propulsion and rockets. He lived until 1948. And yet here's this man that changed the world, and as history goes, not very long ago, I could have known him. Now, he could have been the nice old fellow around the street. I was 15 years old in 1948. And he changed, he and his brother, changed every -- today, now we fly at 45,000 -- 35,000, 30,000 feet, think nothing of it. One -- let's take one airport, Chicago's O'Hare Field, last year alone, 70 million people flew in and out of that one airport. We just take it for granted.
MCCULLOUGHBut it didn't just happen. Who did it? I see my book as the third of a trilogy. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal and the airplane. All happened in the same period of time. All were done by Americans. All at great risk, at great risk to their reputations, great risk to lives, and requiring great courage to have done it. Unprecedented, absolutely unprecedented. And they did it. Well, who were they? Who were they? We should know who they were and what they went through to do what they did, which is to -- all to our benefit.
PAGEHere's what struck me when I got to the last paragraph of your book, which is the first flight 1903, 66 years later -- not that far -- the first man walks on the moon and takes something very special with him. Neil Armstrong did.
MCCULLOUGHHe carried a little swatch of the canvas from the plane that flew at Kitty Hawk.
PAGEHow is it possible that in seven decades that we did this?
MCCULLOUGHBut isn't it also interesting that Neil Armstrong and the Wright brothers, the first fly and the first land on the moon came from the same section of Ohio, southwestern Ohio. To me that's fascinating. And that John Glenn came from Ohio. There's something about that state -- and I truly mean this -- that's -- there's a lot of life going on there. A lot of -- the number of presidents from Ohio. The number of admirable people in many fields from Ohio.
PAGEWhat do you think it is about Ohio?
MCCULLOUGHWell, it was largely settled by Americans who had fought in the Revolutionary War. And it was settled by people from all -- from New England, from Pennsylvania, from -- and, of course, by people coming up from the South. And I also think that rivers -- river cities, river towns are story towns, you know, always. So that Cincinnati and Dayton, they're river towns. And that's important.
PAGENow, we're -- and you yourself are from Pittsburgh.
MCCULLOUGHWhere the Ohio is created.
PAGEBut, you know, we've gotten some listeners who are asking us about a picture that's on the website that shows Katharine Wright flying with Wilbur, with her legs tied together.
PAGETell us about that.
MCCULLOUGHWell, she is about to go up in her first flight. She was just as courageous as they were. And with her long skirts there was the fear that the wind would blow her skirts up and embarrass her. So they tied a rope around the bottom of her skirt. And a famous French designer, Paris fashion designer, saw that and saw it as an opportunity and started -- created a dress with this rope effect. And it became a huge hit, a fashion hit of the day.
PAGELet's talk to Kim, who's calling us from South Hampton, N.Y. Kim, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
KIMHi, thank you. Great topic today.
KIMI'm calling to say I think I was in about eighth grade taking a test in school, the Wright brothers were the subject. And the only question I got wrong was one where it said that -- what did the Wright brothers -- where did they think it could go. And the one that I picked said that they dreamed that one day it would take, you know, passengers up in the air. And I picked that. And the teacher said I got it wrong. And so I argued with her saying, I mean, how you would know what they, you know, dreamed.
MCCULLOUGHWell, your conclusion is fair, but they did not imagine passengers. It isn't in anything that they wrote that we can verify that. Now, that's, as you say, how do we know for sure? But we don't. And it's -- and nor did they dream of the -- of it becoming a weapon.
PAGEOkay. And we're sorry we can't correct your teacher's grading of you on that test in the eighth grade. Let's go to Maria calling us from Peoria, Ill. Hi, Maria.
MARIAHi. Thank you for taking my call. And thank, Mr. McCullough, for the gift that your books have been to us. They're wonderful. And my question is about your writing process. Because your topics are these big, huge, rich areas of investigation where there's just lots and lots of information to get through. You mentioned earlier that there were 1,000 letters that the Wright brothers have at the Library of Congress. And I wondered how do you go about starting -- what -- do you have a process or is it different for every book, to organize this information and come out with the wonderful narratives with their themes that you end up with, if you have a process?
MCCULLOUGHWell, in this line of work you have what are known as primary and secondary sources. The secondary source would be, let's say a book written about the Wright Brothers within the last 50 years or so. And you might read one of those or several of them in order to get your feeling for the story overall. But you want to move from that as quickly and effectively as possible, into the primary sources, which would be letters, diaries, reports written at the time, the journalistic accounts written at the time, court cases recorded at the time and so forth.
MCCULLOUGHEvery -- autobiographies, all of that. And very often there's much more than you first imagine as you're getting underway. But it's in that -- in those primary sources, the original letters, diaries and the rest, that the real heart of the story is to be found. And that takes time, but it's also extremely interesting. And the more you know, the more you want to know. It's accelerates like gravity. And in this case, the fact that it's all in Library of Congress, and it's thoroughly well preserved and organized, makes it a joy to set out on that adventure.
MCCULLOUGHAnd I think, also, you have to go to the place -- places where things happened. And you have to go at the time of year when they happened. You have to get a feeling of the smell and the -- how the light falls and how people there in that neck of the woods talk and how they think and what they're proud of and what they know that you don't know. And everybody knows something you don't know.
MCCULLOUGHAnd so to go to Kitty Hawk and talk with people who are descendants of the original settlers and occupants of the -- of that territory, to go to Dayton and get a feeling of that, to go France where Wilbur first flew, at Le Mans, or to Paris, to where he was staying and walking the streets and sending fantastic letters home to his father and sister about his time spent looking at paintings in the Louvre, his time deciding why he liked certain great architectural monuments of the city. That's when you really get to know these people.
PAGEDo you feel that you know them? If they walked into today, would you have a sense of them?
MCCULLOUGHYes. You -- I have with virtually every book I've written -- you feel -- begin to feel you know them better than you know people in real life. Because, for one thing, in real life you don't get to read other people's mail.
PAGEHere's a question -- an email from Tina, who writes, "You are without a doubt my favorite author. And "John Adams" is my favorite book of all time. Do you feel you have to admire the people who are at the center of your books?
MCCULLOUGHI think I feel I have to admire them for what they did, what they accomplished. And admire their tenacity, their courage, their loyalty, all of those things. But do they have to be flawless? Oh, heavens no. Perfection is boring. And one thing a writer doesn't want to be is boring. And they're human and subject to all the weaknesses and strengths of human nature and human -- the human experience. I -- history is human. It's about people. "When in the course of human events," our great Declaration beings. That's -- and the key -- the operative word there is human.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Mel, calling us from Lynchburg, Va. Mel, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MELYes, hello. And thank you so much for taking my call. I just wanted to comment, with all due respect, Mr. McCullough, I have to stand up for Samuel Pierpont Langley as a blood relative and also someone who has researched his work quite extensively for that reason, and also the family history and love of aviation, that it is my position that it was not the aircraft itself, but rather his method of launch, which was to try and catapult it off of the roof of a houseboat…
MEL…as opposed to a runway. And I firmly believe that had he used the runway approach he would have, in fact, beaten the Wright brothers. I mean, I understand that, you know, he's being positioned as -- and he was, in fact, in position of the favorite, in terms of the government's funding for the program for the development of manpowered flight. And, in fact, his unmanned projects did achieve extended flights that exceeded the Kitty Hawk experiments…
MCCULLOUGHEverything you're saying is true. And I don't -- by talking about his failure, I don't mean to diminish him. And if you want to read the -- as handsome a tribute as ever put down on paper about Samuel Langley, read what Wilbur Wright wrote about him in my book.
PAGEWhat did Wilbur Wright say about him?
MCCULLOUGHWell, that he was a pioneer in his experimental work, his ideas, and his intellectual accomplishments in this field were of immense value to everybody.
PAGEMel, thanks for your call. And we certainly understand you defending your relative. Let's talk to Gaye, calling us from Kentucky. Hi, Gaye.
GAYEYes, good morning.
GAYEI was in the Navy from '63 to '66. And I was training to be an air traffic controller, so airplanes are quite a hobby of mine. I actually live right next door to Fort Campbell. So I get to see the Chinooks and the Apaches and the Blackhawks and the -- all kinds of planes, the stealth planes that they have. My question about the Dayton to the Outer Banks, was how did they get the plane from there, from Dayton to the coast? Was it by train, by -- I think they had trucks by that time. They certainly couldn't fly it there.
MCCULLOUGHWell, they -- that's a very astute question. They -- and these planes were good size. They would take it all apart and -- in sections. And they would ship those sections in huge crates by train. And when -- since there was no bridge or anything over to the Outer Banks, they would have to then ship it across to the Outer Banks by boat. And then put it back together again.
PAGEGaye, thanks so much for your call. We're almost out of time. I want to ask you one last question. It's a tweet from John. And he writes, "Is flying really that important?"
MCCULLOUGHYes, indeed it is. It's part of life. It's part of the real world. And it's with us to stay.
PAGEAnd an extraordinary achievement…
PAGE…to have done so.
MCCULLOUGHPhenomenal, phenomenal. And to just say, oh, they're the guys who invented the airplane and walk away from it is to miss one of the most remarkable stories in history.
PAGEDo you know the topic of your next book?
MCCULLOUGHNo. I certainly do not. And if I did, I wouldn't want to talk about it yet. But, thank you.
PAGEDavid McCullough, we want to thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show." His new book is called "The Wright Brothers." He's, of course, the author, the historian, has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, the National Book Award twice, has made several appearances on "The Diane Rehm Show," and we're so glad that you were back to join us on this…
MCCULLOUGHThank you very much. I've enjoyed it immensely. Thank you.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
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