Book Review: The Bishop’s Boys

What was the world like when the Wright Brothers make the first sustained, powered flight?  Most of us are familiar with the year (1903) and the place (the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk), but what allowed Wilbur and Orville to accomplish this feat? How did they succeed where better funded efforts had failed?  The Bishop’s Boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom Crouch, answers those questions and literally transports the reader back to the decades before and after the introduction of powered flight—setting the stage for the airplanes we enjoy today.

This story is not a quick read, unless you do nothing else for a couple days straight.  The 529 page account is broken into three sections. The first introduces us to the Wright family–particularly Wilbur and Orville’s father, Milton, who had a profound influence on their lives.  Milton was a dedicated church man, who rose to the rank of Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren. In this capacity, he spent much time on the road. Also a devoted family man, he corresponded frequently with his wife and children, providing a rich source of material frequently quoted in the book.

The second section introduces us to the public’s interest in powered flight, which was bubbling over at the end of the 1800’s in the US and Europe.  We meet the leaders of the aeronautical movement, men including civil engineer Octave Chanute, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and Otto Lilienthal, the German engineer and aviation enthusiast.  Lilienthal had completed almost two thousand flights in sixteen different models of gliders in a five year period prior to 1896.  The exploits of these individuals, and more, made headlines in the popular press which fanned a fever already in the back of the Wright Brother’s minds.  It was the work of these pioneers that Wilbur and Orville turned to as they started their own investigation into the secrets of powered, heavier than air flight.  While the concepts of lift and drag had already been identified, even initial formulas derived to calculate them, the genius of the brothers was their decision to focus on how to control an aircraft in flight. The famed December 17 flight at Kitty Hawk is today identified as the milestone we associate with the start of powered flight, however put in context of the times,  the aircraft that flew that day was but a prototype that continued to evolve over the next several years toward the first “production” aircraft.

Wilbur Wright instructing a student pilot in Pau, France, passes over an ox cart.–1909.

The final section of the book covers the post Kitty Hawk period. While continuing to improve upon their aircraft design, Wilbur and Orville increasingly had to deal with the political and business world to gain acceptance of their invention.   The brothers attempted to cloak themselves in secrecy to protect the patentable aspects of their work, at the same time trying to sell their invention to the government and to interests in Europe.  The years that followed became the “patent wars” with more time spent in court defending their invention, and less in the shop doing what they did best—solving technical problems to advance aeronautical science.

While written in 1989, the book feels timeless. The author tells the story as it happened, with inclusions of quotes from the letters, news reports and documents of the day. The bother’s focus on developing a way to control an airship in all three axes (roll, pitch and yaw) set them apart from others attempting to achieve powered flight.  Fortunately for us, a wealth of documents and photographs survive–and are liberally sprinkled throughout the book.  This isn’t just a story for pilots.  Crouch, who happens to be the senior curator for the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum, also describes the social and political issues of that era. He goes into some detail on the patent war that stifled aeronautical creativity and innovation, and the controversy between the Wrights and the Smithsonian Institution. Tied to a major dispute over claims of the historical significance of Langley’s efforts versus the Wright’s accomplishments, this feud of almost thirty years duration came close to costing us our ability to look up the Wright Flyer that hangs prominently in the Air and Space Museum today.

When I next crawl into the pilots seat of my own aircraft, it will be with a much deeper appreciation of what the Wright brothers—and the other pioneers of their times—did to bring us the gift of flight!

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