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The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright

by Tom Crouch

On the 110th anniversary of their immortal flights at Kitty Hawk, it seems appropriate to go back to stuff we might have missed the first—or second or third—time we read about the Wright brothers. Or maybe time has obscured some of the once-familiar details. With those thoughts in mind, I sought out this book by Tom Crouch, the senior curator of the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum, who remains very active in research relating to the Wrights.

Now, I admit to being hardware-oriented: Show me the airplanes! While The Bishop’s Boys provides enough stick-and-wire details to satisfy my mechanical appetite, it also delves deeply into the personalities, family and foibles of two men whom history has morphed into idols on pedestals. Some have wondered why these two, among all the experimenters and theorists over the ages who tried but failed to fly “like the birds,” succeeded. And that query has led to speculation about which unique qualities set them apart from other aviation experimenters.

One academic paper presented at the Wright State University School of Medicine theorized that the invention of the airplane by the Wrights was “due, very possibly, to the presence of a left hemispheric dominant personality in Wilbur Wright and a right hemispheric dominant personality in Orville Wright”—a right-brain, left-brain combination that made them able to “complement each other’s skills and creativity in such a way as to make this feat possible.” Hmmm.

My own interest over the years in the Wright brothers has been along the lines of what they did, not how they did it. Crouch’s book looks at the Wrights as people— brothers who although close were different enough to have squabbles and difficult times, just like most siblings do. There were times when they tiptoed around each other’s sensitivities and times when they just had to work out disagreements, even if things got a little loud in the process.

At one point I thought the book digressed too much into the schism caused by Bishop Wright’s legal battles with his church—but as with other things, this aspect of the story provided background for the patent infringement litigation the “boys” aggressively pursued against Glenn Curtiss and others who made use of their technology and challenged the Wrights’ claims to being the first to fly heavier-than-air craft. This led to one of my “aha” moments, when I marveled at the dogged determination the brothers showed; I no longer wondered where they got that from. I recently heard one researcher quip that “The Wrights invented the airplane—then wasted the rest of their lives suing people.” Hmmm again.

The Bishop’s Boys filled some gaps in my aeronautical knowledge—plus it spurred me to dig into how important genes and family experience were in molding the brothers’ creative process, in this case creating a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.


Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.