James Tobin, award-winning author of Ernie Pyle's War and The Man He Became, has penned the definitive account of the inspiring and impassioned race between the Wright brothers and their primary rival Samuel Langley across ten years and two continents to conquer the air.
For years, Wilbur Wright and his younger brother, Orville, experimented in obscurity, supported only by their exceptional family. Meanwhile, the world watched as Samuel Langley, armed with a contract from the US War Department and all the resources of the Smithsonian Institution, sought to create the first manned flying machine. But while Langley saw flight as a problem of power, the Wrights saw a problem of balance. Thus their machines took two very different paths—Langley’s toward oblivion, the Wrights’ toward the heavens—though not before facing countless other obstacles. With a historian’s accuracy and a novelist’s eye, Tobin has captured an extraordinary moment in history. To Conquer the Air is itself a heroic achievement.
This extraordinarily well-written and deeply nuanced work is the best of the recent spate of books celebrating the Wright Brothers and the 100-year anniversary of their invention of the airplane. Award-winning biographer Tobin (Ernie Pyle's War) provides a detailed yet truly exciting tale of the brothers' lifelong effort to stand "against the wave of popular doubt about the possibility of human flight." The book's strength resides in Tobin's careful depiction of two main elements of the Wright story. First, Tobin provides the fullest and most sympathetic account yet written of the close-knit Wright family and the impact of its ethic "the Wrights versus the world" on the brothers, at the same time that he recaptures the personal qualities that were forgotten after they became aviation icons. ("Will had a devastating dry wit, but there was more fun in Orville.") Second, Tobin is stunningly effective in presenting the intertwining lives of the brothers and an amazing cast of friends and competitors, including such inventors as Samuel Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian and creator of the doomed Aerodrome, and his friend and fellow flight enthusiast Alexander Graham Bell; Octave Chanute, one of the brothers' earliest supporters; and Glenn Curtiss, the brothers' main competitor. Tobin's final chapter, which details Wilbur Wright's historic flight in 1909 circling Manhattan, is a definitive account of the crowning final triumph of the Wrights' career.