The Wright Brothers / by Erin Wade

This past week I finished listening to the biography on the Wright Brothers by David McCullough. To be honest, I entered this book with no special interest in the Wright Brothers or their story. I bought the book because it was by David McCullough[1], and because I needed to spend some credits on Audible before I lost them.

My personal mental image of the Wright Brothers has always been that of simple bicycle merchants who took up a hobby and ended up inventing a very basic and rudimentary - albeit the first - flying machine.

I had no idea.

Obviously and understandably the overwhelming majority of what the book focused on was their development of powered flight - and the story it told in this regard was excellent. I learned a great deal about how that happened, the innovations in engineering and understanding required to achieve it, and the struggles along the way. But as a bike guy, the book also left me interested in learning more about the bikes.

They were not simple bicycle merchants, they were bicycle builders. Builders in an era in which the bicycle was really coming of age - moving away from the ridiculous penny farthing designs into something very much like what we ride today.

I wanted to find pictures of their bicycles and learn more about their construction. The book mentions two models designed and built by the Wrights - the Van Cleve and the St. Clair. A very few examples of their bikes are still known to exist - one of them is at The Smithsonian National Air and Space museum, and can be seen in pictures here at, and the site maintains a page specifically about the bicycles, including photographs and old ads for both bicycles, and providing information on their construction.

What is striking about both models is how utterly modern these 100 year-old-plus bicycles appear. The Wright’s innovated in bike design ahead of their work in aviation. They invented a self-oiling hub - a vital item give the mostly unpaved and hence dusty streets and roads of the day. They also developed the notion of threading pedals to their posts with threads going to the right on one side (which was standard) and to the left on the other so that side wouldn’t unscrew and fall off. This was, apparently, a common problem with bikes at the time - you’d just be riding along, and the act of pedaling would cause one of your pedals to loosen, and ultimately just fall off.

What I love about this solution - threading it backwards - is that it seems so very much of a piece with what I learned from the biography about their approach to flight. It is the type of thing that, in retrospect, seems a very simple solution. But it clearly took an elegant perspective to be able to step back from what everyone was already doing, and find a different way of thinking about it in order to solve the problem.

I can heartily and happily recommend The Wright Brothers biography - it was an excellent listen from Audible, and I’m sure it would be an excellent read on your iPad or Kindle (as well as printed on pieces of the processed corpses of trees, if one wants to live that way) as well.

  1. everything I’ve read (or listened to) by David McCullough - The John Adams Biography, The Truman Biography, 1776 - has frankly been so excellent that even if it’s not about a subject I thought I was interested in (Truman was not high on my list) I will go ahead and give it a try anyway. I’ve yet to be disappointed.  ↩

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