To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

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Simon and Schuster, May 3, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 433 pages
"For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life." So wrote a quiet young Ohioan in 1900, one in an ancient line of men who had wanted to fly, men who wanted it passionately, fecklessly, hopelessly. But now, at the turn of the twentieth century, Wilbur Wright and a scattered handful of other adventurers conceived a conviction that the dream lay at last within reach, and in a headlong race across ten years and two continents, they competed to conquer the air. James Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, has at last given this inspiring story its definitive telling. For years Wright and his younger brother, Orville, experimented in utter obscurity, supported only by their exceptional family. Meanwhile, the world watched as the imperious Samuel Langley, armed with a rich contract from the U.S. War Department and all the resources of the Smithsonian Institution, sought to scale up his unmanned models to create the first manned flying machine. But while Langley became obsessed with flight as a problem of power, the Wrights grappled with it as a problem of balance. Thus their machines took two very different paths, his toward oblivion, theirs toward the heavens. As Tobin relates, the Wrights' 1903 triumph at Kitty Hawk, however hallowed in American lore, was ill-reported and disbelieved. So, while the two brothers struggled to transform their delicate contraption into a practical airplane, others moved to overtake them as the leading pioneers of flight. In France, rivals scoffed at the Wrights even as they rushed to imitate them. At home, the great inventor Alexander Graham Bell seized the fallen banner of his friend Langley and thrust it into the hands of a circle of young daredevils, urging them "to get into the air." From this group emerged the motorcyclist Glenn Curtiss, "fastest man in the world," whose aerial challenge to Wilbur Wright culminated in an unforgettable showdown over New York harbor. To Conquer the Air is a hero's tale of overcoming obstacles within and without that plumbs the depths of creativity and character. With a historian's accuracy and a novelist's eye, Tobin has captured the interplay of remarkable personalities at an extraordinary moment in our history, in the centennial year of human flight. To Conquer the Air is itself a heroic achievement. An award-winning historian offers a gripping narrative of the fierce competition on the centennial of the Wright Brothers' achievement.

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User Review  - amerynth - LibraryThing

James Tobin's "To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight" tells the story of three efforts (mainly) to prove that man could take to the skies. Its major focus is on the ... Read full review

TO CONQUER THE AIR: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

User Review  - Kirkus

Kitty Hawk was just the beginning for the Wright brothers, explains NBCC Award-winner Tobin (Ernie Pyle's War, 1997) in his history of their first flight and ensuing efforts to make flying practical ... Read full review


Prologue Decoration Day 1899
Chapter One The Edge of Wonder
Chapter Two A Slight Possibility
Chapter Three Some Practical Experiments
Chapter Four Truth and Error Intimately Mixed
Chapter Five The Possibility of Exactness
Chapter Seven Our Turn to Throw
Chapter EightWhat Hath God Wrought?
Chapter Nine The Clean Air of the Heavens
Chapter Ten A Flying Machine at Anchor
Chapter Twelve The Light on Glorys Plume
Chapter Thirteen The Greatest Courage and Achievements
A Note on Sources

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About the author (2004)

Ron Powers
Co-author of Flags of Our Fathers

What The Metaphysical Club was to the development of philosophic thought in America, this beautiful book is to the development of man in flight. Far more than a mere account of the Wright brothers' triumph, To Conquer the Air is a yeasty, richly drawn evocation of an era and of the strange, visionary, obsessed, and difficult men who battled one another to claim it in their name.

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