Excerpt from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

By Lawrence Goldstone

  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: May 2014,
    448 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Genius Extinguished

At 3:15 a.m. on May 30, 1912, Wilbur Wright died peacefully in his own bed in the family home at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio, surrounded by his father, Milton; his sister, Katharine; and his three brothers, Lorin, Reuchlin, and Orville. Wilbur had contracted typhoid fever one month earlier from, the speculation went, eating tainted clam broth in a Boston restaurant. At five feet ten and 140 pounds, his body had lacked the strength to fight off an ailment that in the coming decades would be routinely vanquished with antibiotics. He was forty-five years old.

America had lost one of its heroes, one of two men to solve the riddle of human flight, and messages of praise and condolence poured into Dayton from around the world. More than one thousand telegrams arrived within twenty-four hours of Wilbur's death. President William Howard Taft—who at 350 pounds could never himself be a passenger in a Wright Flyer, although his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt had been—issued a statement declaring Wilbur to be the "father of the great new science of aeronautics," who would be remembered on a par with Robert Fulton and Alexander Graham Bell. Aeronautics magazine exclaimed, "Mr. Wright was revered by all who knew him, he was honored by an entire world, it was a privilege, never to be forgotten, to talk with him.

Across the nation, newspapers and magazines decried the sad stroke of luck that had robbed the nation of one of its great men. At 7 Hawthorn Street, however, members of the Wright family did not believe Wilbur's death to have been a result of bad luck at all. To them, Wilbur had been as good as murdered, hounded to his grave by a competitor so dishonest, so unscrupulous, so lacking in human feeling as to remain a family scourge as long as any of them remained alive.

Glenn Curtiss.

The bitter, decade-long Wright–Curtiss feud pitted against each other two of the nation's most brilliant innovators and shaped the course of American aviation. The ferocity with which Wilbur Wright attacked and Glenn Curtiss countered first launched America into preeminence in the skies and then doomed it to mediocrity. It would take the most destructive conflict in human history to undo the damage.

The combatants were well matched. As is often the case with those who despise each other, Curtiss and Wilbur were sufficiently alike to have been brothers themselves. Both were obsessive and serious, and one is hard-pressed to find a photograph of either, even as a child, in which he does not appear dour. Wilbur Wright was the son of a minister, Curtiss the grandson of one. Wilbur was the grandson of a carriage maker, Curtiss the son of a harness maker. Each came to aviation via the same route—racing, repairing, and building bicycles—and each displayed the amalgam of analytic instincts and dogged perseverance that a successful inventor requires. Most significant, neither of these men would ever take even one small step backward in a confrontation.

They may have been alike, but they were not the same. Wilbur Wright is one of the greatest intuitive scientists this nation has ever produced. Completely self-taught, he made spectacular intellectual leaps to solve a series of intractable problems that had eluded some of history's most brilliant men. Curtiss was not Wilbur's equal as a theoretician—few were—but he was a superb craftsman, designer, and applied scientist. In physics, he would be Enrico Fermi to Wilbur's Albert Einstein.

After Wilbur's death, Orville attempted to maintain the struggle, but while his hatred for Curtiss matched Wilbur's, his talents and temperament did not. Many subsequent accounts have treated the Wright brothers as indistinguishable equals, but Orville viscerally as well as chronologically never ceased being the little brother. As family correspondence makes clear, his relationship with Wilbur was a good deal more complex than is generally assumed and after his brother's death, Orville was never able to muster the will to pursue their mutual obsessions with the necessary zeal.

Excerpted from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Goldstone. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Jenny

Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Hundred-Year House
    The Hundred-Year House
    by Rebecca Makkai
    Rebecca Makkai's sophomore novel The Hundred-Year House could just have easily been titled ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Valley of Amazement
    by Amy Tan
    "Mirror, Mirror on the wall
    I am my mother after all!"

    In my pre-retirement days as a professor ...
  • Book Jacket: A Man Called Ove
    A Man Called Ove
    by Fredrik Backman
    Reading A Man Called Ove was like having Christmas arrive early. Set in Sweden, this debut novel is ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

Tomlinson Hill
by Chris Tomlinson

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist


Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.