THE WRIGHT BROTHERS

THE TITLE OF this book, first published in 1951, would more likely have appealed to Bishop Milton Wright than his agnostic sons; their invention was a model of rational thought and careful study true genius, I would say and nothing to do with any miracle.

THE TITLE OF this book, first published in 1951, would more likely have appealed to Bishop Milton Wright than his agnostic sons; their invention was a model of rational thought and careful study true genius, I would say and nothing to do with any miracle. Indeed, as the letters reveal, the problem dogging the brothers' early efforts at selling their machine was that so many people thought their claims were exaggerated, or simply didn't believe that two American cycle makers could have unravelled the secrets of flight. Either they were liars or, if there was some glimmer of truth in their claims, it had to have been a 'miracle'

Wilbur and Orville left an extensive archive of papers to the U.S. Library of Congress, containing copies of their own letters as well as many sent to them. Making a selection is a formidable challenge; in his preface, Fred Kelly says that the brothers themselves wrote something like ten thousand! He has done a fine job and produced an engrossing book. By combining the correspondence with interpretative notes, he shows how Orville and Wilbur Wright possessed not only the innate scientific ability to tackle the problem of flight, but the persistence and inspiration to surmount the obstacles and blind alleys that had halted their predecessors.

Miracle at Kitty Hawk also says a lot about the rather depressing number of individuals who tried to take advantage of the brothers' invention or claim it for themselves. The patient, gentlemanly response these charlatans and detractors elicited is a model of reason and honour. If Orville and Wilbur had a reputation for being 'difficult', one can appreciate its origins; for the better part they really were surrounded by fools and knaves people who just didn't measure up to their intellect.

Indeed, this collection of letters fleshes out the character of the two men to a wonderful extent. Wilbur, in particular, was an outstanding correspondent and the polished nature of his writing reflects the pleasure Kelly says he took in composition. (It certainly leads you to reflect on the quality and ephemeral nature of today's e mail!) Orville was less keen, but his writing developed and assumed a greater importance after Wilbur died in 1912, aged only 44.

The thing is, letters are most revealing and they posses a power to move the reader that surpasses any straight biographical or certainly any technical account. Fred Kelly's book stands as a first rate testimony; the closer one gets to these two wonderful men, the larger they loom in one s estimation. Fools and knaves still abound, so how nice to discover two heroes who more than bear such intimate scrutiny. Philip Whiteman.

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