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Later in the year, you will, I predict, start seeing centennial reminders of a truly epochal event that has changed us all, and changed our world forever. On 17 December 1903, a couple of brothers from Dayton, Ohio, managed to get their "aeroplane" in the air, and we haven't come down since. There are plenty of biographies of Wilbur and Orville Wright, but in _To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight_ (Free Press), James Tobin has told mainly their story of intellectual discovery, and made it clear how much work the brothers did in making their dreams come about. As such, it tells a great deal about the others who were thinking about flight at around the same time; the Wrights were not experimenting or flying in a vacuum. The upcoming centennial celebrations ought to be worldwide, and readers of this engaging and detailed chronicle will have a much better idea of just what we will be celebrating.
The other main potential aeronaut was Dr. Samuel Langley, president of the Smithsonian Institution, and he hung his hopes for flight on a powerful but light engine. The Wrights, on the other hand, started out with the shape of the craft, especially the wings, to lead to flight. It was to get good wind for their kite and glider experiments, and unobstructed landing points, and also secrecy, that they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for their trials. The developed the idea of warping the wing to control the machine, and invented "Kitty Hawk in a box," the wind tunnel, to do scientific lift experiments. When they discovered that wing warping would not allow full control without the kite yawing into a skid, they added a vertical tail, and it worked; such things could not be taken for granted back then. After successful flights of increasing length on 17 December 1903, the brothers walked four miles to send a telegram home about their success, ending with "INFORM PRESS." However, the press either printed exaggerated stories, or for the most part, ignored them. Whole nations remained incredulous, and only when Wilbur took a machine to France, and demonstrated it, and had the entire nation excited about him, did the world, including his own country, start paying attention.
There are fine portraits here of these taciturn men, their extremely close relationship with each other and with the father and sister within their staunchly Protestant family home. Neither brother married; Wilbur joked that they had no means to support "a wife and a flying machine, too." There are other players on the fringes here, like Octave Chanute, Alexander Graham Bell, and Glenn Curtiss, who played extremely important roles in flight or in the Wrights' work. Best of all is the account of painstaking work in an endeavor that all of us take for granted now. The book quotes one observer, for instance, as saying the flying machine looked absurd; cars, boats, and trains all traveled lengthwise, but an airplane came at you with the full width of its wings. In the finale of the book, Wilbur takes his machine on a grand sweep around Manhattan, entrancing the enthusiastic crowds beneath. Readers will be able to feel the enthusiasm.