Summary and book reviews of Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone

Birdmen

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

By Lawrence Goldstone

Birdmen
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  • Hardcover: May 2014,
    448 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Book Summary

The feud between this nation's great air pioneers, the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, was a collision of unyielding and profoundly American personalities. On one side, a pair of tenacious siblings who together had solved the centuries-old riddle of powered, heavier-than-air flight. On the other, an audacious motorcycle racer whose innovative aircraft became synonymous in the public mind with death-defying stunts. For more than a decade, they battled each other in court, at air shows, and in the newspapers. The outcome of this contest of wills would shape the course of aviation history - and take a fearsome toll on the men involved.

Birdmen sets the engrossing story of the Wrights' war with Curtiss against the thrilling backdrop of the early years of manned flight, and is rich with period detail and larger-than-life personalities: Thomas Scott Baldwin, or "Cap't Tom" as he styled himself, who invented the parachute and almost convinced the world that balloons were the future of aviation; John Moisant, the dapper daredevil who took to the skies after three failed attempts to overthrow the government of El Salvador, then quickly emerged as a celebrity flyer; and Harriet Quimby, the statuesque silent-film beauty who became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And then there is Lincoln Beachey, perhaps the greatest aviator who ever lived, who dazzled crowds with an array of trademark twists and dives—and best embodied the romance with death that fueled so many of aviation's earliest heroes.

A dramatic story of unimaginable bravery in the air and brutal competition on the ground, Birdmen is at once a thrill ride through flight's wild early years and a surprising look at the personal clash that fueled America's race to the skies.

PROLOGUE
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 ...

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Goldstone outlines practically every nuance about the patent fight and this makes for slow reading, especially since the field of view is restricted mostly to the players’ lives on the airfield. While we do learn of the Wright brothers’ strict religious views (their father was a pastor in Ohio), very little else comes through clearly about their personal lives. Despite these drawbacks, Birdmen soars in having us weigh the costs of shared knowledge on the one hand and just rewards on the other.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

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Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

A powerful story that contrasts soaring hopes with the anchors of ego and courtroom.

Booklist

This period history presents ample biographical details for readers who enjoy rivalries.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A riveting narrative about the pioneering era of aeronautics in America and beyond...a well-written, thoroughly researched work that is sure to compel readers interested in history, aviation, and invention.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Superbly crafted... strengthened by fresh perspectives, rigorous analyses, comprehensible science, and a driving narrative.

Author Blurb Dr. Amanda Foreman, author A World on Fire
Birdmen is so much more than the story of man's leap into the clouds. Exhilarating, exasperating, and inspiring in equal measure, the Wright brothers' tale is a parable for modern times, told in fascinating detail and gripping prose by Lawrence Goldstone.

Author Blurb Adam Makos, internationally bestselling author of A Higher Call
Meticulously researched and illuminating, Birdmen unveils the forgotten flyboys who gave America an invention to win wars, spread peace, and advance her destiny—air power.

Author Blurb Bill Griffeth, author of By Faith Alone
The history of human flight goes way beyond the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Lawrence Goldstone skillfully tells the rest of the story about the dreamers history has forgotten, and it's a helluva story superbly told. Birdmen is a wondrous journey from takeoff to landing.

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The Jenny

Two JennysIn Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone describes how Glenn Curtiss diversified operations and courted a variety of vendors to deliver specialized engines and airplanes. Most notable amongst these were the JN series of airplanes built to fulfill an army request that both the engine and the propeller be at the front of the plane. Up until then crashes dislocated a rear-placed engine that would then roll forward and crush the pilot. The JN series, popularly known as the Jenny, went through a series of iterations with engine and other structural changes but the JN-4, with a Curtiss engine, was by far the most popular. World War I put production into overdrive with the Army, Navy and the Canadian armed forces all signing contracts for the plane.

...

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