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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945
(c1999)

5. Metal and commercial aviation i: Henry Ford takes flight,   pp. [96]-113


Page [96]

5
Metal and Commercial Aviation I:
Henry Ford Takes Flight
ALTHOUGH THE MILITARY was the dominant force behind the development of
metal airplanes in the 1920s, manufacturers of commercial airplanes also
made key contributions. Many proponents of commercial aviation were
even more enamored of metal than their military counterparts. The military
contribution was larger simply because its resources far exceeded those of
commercial firms.
Commercial aviation in America developed directly from military tech-
nologies. After World War I, American commercial airplanes differed little
from military aircraft in materials and structures. In the early postwar years,
metal proved just as unsuitable for commercial as for military use, with the
exception of the steel-tube fuselage, which was adopted for commercial
models as soon as it became standard for military planes. A number of air-
plane firms attempted to build commercial metal airplanes in the early
1920s, but few finished more than a single vehicle.
Developing a metal airplane was an expensive and frustrating process,
one that proved just as difficult for private firms as for the military Few
firms could combine the capital and expertise needed to produce metal air-
planes for an air transport market that remained almost entirely hypotheti-
cal. Nevertheless, a number of small companies gave it a try; one of these
was the Stout Metal Airplane Company, established by William Stout after
his unsuccessful navy contracts.' When Stout joined forces with Henry
Ford, the richest industrialist in America, advocates of metal airplanes
gained the most powerful ally possible. Yet even Henry Ford's vast wealth
and talented engineers could not turn metal airplane production into a prof-
itable business.
American Air Transport in the 1920s
Before 1925, there was little demand for commercial aircraft. Immediately
following the war, American manufacturers developed a number of promis-
ing passenger and freight airplanes to supply dozens of proposed airlines.
Most of these new airlines were stillborn, however, in part due to the 1921


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