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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

4. An old role for the military: government support for metal airplane construction,   pp. [64]-95

Page [64]

An Old Role for the Military:
Government Support for
Metal Airplane Construction
MILITARY SUPPORT was essential to the success of American metal airplanes.
Between the world wars, the army and navy promoted metal airplanes fi-
nancially, technically, and ideologically Beginning in the summer of 1920,
the air arms of both services launched major programs to develop metal
airplanes suitable for military use. These programs produced multiple
failures; by 1925 neither service had acquired metal airplanes suitable for
operational squadrons. Despite these failures, the army and navy persisted
with efforts to develop metal airplanes, finally achieving success at the end
of the decade.
The centrality of military support to the development of metal airplanes
should come as no surprise. Warfare has shaped technical change from the
beginning of human history, while military needs played a key role in the
emergence of Western technology during the Early Modern period. In
the nineteenth century the military provided essential support for a num-
ber of important new technologies, including interchangeable parts, rail-
roads, and steel. In the twentieth century, military influence rose to a new
level, creating entirely new industries that served both civilian and mili-
tary purposes, including nuclear power, radar, space flight, computers, and
microelectronics.' But the first such industry was aviation. Without military
support, the airplane would have remained little more than a curiosity
suited to entertaining crowds at county fairs.2
As David Edgerton has argued, the airplane's dependence on military
support clashes with the liberal ideal that technologies should develop natu-
rally from forces operating within civil society. From the perspective of this
liberal ideal, military influence is an artificial distortion of the normal, mar-
ket-driven process of technical change. The standard technical histories of
aviation all reflect this view, attributing major advances to commercial fac-
tors.3 A few members of the aviation community accepted this liberal myth,
and argued that military influence was inimical to civil aviation. Promoters
like William Stout dreamed of producing airplanes that could support
themselves financially as well as aerodynamically, without any need for gov-
ernment assistance. Fortunately for the industry, no one took Stout's rheto-

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