Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies
"They call me the master Birdman, but people come to see me die." Such was the (premature) retirement announcement of an early aviator and speed demon --- just one of the many daredevils whose guts, genius and glory-hunger are highlighted in this book by award-winning author Lawrence Goldstone, examining in colorful detail the birth of manned flight.
By the early 20th century, certain men in Europe and the US were propelled by the sense that it was now or never. Whether in balloons or winged vehicles, the time had come for humans to fly. This led to competition among the best aeronautic minds --- some astute and scientific, and just as many uneducated but marked by raw grit and flashes of brilliance. In the latter category were the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, bicycle mechanics who famously launched the first real airplane (carrying a pilot, propelled by an engine, able to stay off the ground with a modicum of control for more than a few feet) in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903. Goldstone makes it clear that it was Wilbur who had the greater mechanical and engineering ability, as well as the entrepreneurial zeal necessary to profit from his experiments and innovations. But there were others vying aggressively for the same laurels, notably Glenn Curtiss, who believed he had the edge on the development of the airplane engine.
"This portrait of the destinies that clashed, coalesced and eventually produced the gift of manned flight will perhaps prompt new dreams among 21st-century thinkers with eyes on the stars."
Goldstone attributes the impulse of Wilbur Wright, whose relatives were brooding sectarian Christians, to stop and sue for what he was due rather than pursue his aeronautic dreams, to what philosopher Max Weber referred to as "ascetic capitalism" --- a belief that God ordains and blesses hard work and its rewards. The rivalry between Curtiss and the older Wright brother resulted in a bitter, lengthy court battle over specific patents, stalling the development of the modern aviation technology. But at the same time, throughout America and the world, other possibilities such as dirigibles, motorized gliders, and better and more efficient engines were contributing to push air travel ahead.
The men (and at least one woman) who joined in the fray were circus performers, scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors and risk-takers. Airshows, often including life-threatening feats (and some horrific deaths), became a part of the American fairground scene as the fans who had embraced the horseless carriage thirsted for vicarious thrills, envisioning a time when we all would have our own private airships.
The characters who peopled that remarkable impulse to get us into the clouds are as fascinating as the technical jargon and legal morass examined in BIRDMEN. This portrait of the destinies that clashed, coalesced and eventually produced the gift of manned flight will perhaps prompt new dreams among 21st-century thinkers with eyes on the stars.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 9, 2014