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

1. Materials, symbols, and ideologies of progress,   pp. [3]-21

Page 9

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                     9
After the war, news of the German metal airplanes generated tremendous
excitement among the Allies, especially in the United States. American avia-
tion engineers quickly applied themselves to the design and construction of
metal aircraft, with substantial support from the army and navy. Yet despite
the optimistic predictions of metal's supporters, wood remained widespread
in aircraft structures into the early 1930s.
Chapter three examines the technical reasons behind this continued use
of wood, along with the cultural factors underlying the strong support for
metal. This chapter presents the heart of my argument. Advocates of metal
made a strong case for its advantages over wood, yet in practice metal failed
to fulfill expectations. This failure resulted from what I call the technical
indeterminacy of the choice between wood and metal. Experience with
metal airplanes in the 1920s showed that the claims made by metal's propo-
nents for fire safety, durability, lightness, and lower production costs were
uncertain at best. Metal indeed had definite advantages, but it also faced
serious problems not present in wood construction. No accepted criteria
existed for balancing these advantages and disadvantages. Neither technical
arguments nor practical experience could convincingly demonstrate the su-
periority of metal.
Support for metal did not, in fact, draw its strength principally from tech-
nical arguments, but rather from symbolic meanings as articulated in the
progress ideology of metal. Chapter three concludes with an examination of
this ideology. Metal's supporters expressed this ideology quite openly, in-
sisting that the shift from wood to metal was an inevitable aspect of techni-
cal progress. They argued that the airplane would repeat the shift to metal
undergone by prior wood-using technologies such as shipbuilding and
bridge construction. This ideology provided more than just useful rhetoric
to supporters of metal: it also inhibited public expressions of support for
wood while insuring that metal received a disproportionate share of funds
for research and development.
Chapters four and five examine early attempts to develop metal airplanes
after World War I for military and commercial use. The military led the way
in the early development of metal airplanes, as discussed in chapter four.
The army and navy officially endorsed metal construction in 1920 and dog-
gedly supported metal airplane projects despite repeated failures. The
armed forces gave contracts to favored manufacturers for experimental
metal types, while also underwriting research in government laboratories on
the problems of metal construction. When researchers discovered a serious
corrosion problem with aluminum airplanes in 1925, the navy orchestrated
a concerted federal effort to find a solution. After 1925, metal also spread to
commercial aviation, when Henry Ford started building metal airliners.
Chapter five details Ford's venture into metal aircraft production, which
ended as a multi-million-dollar failure. Ford's failure notwithstanding, his

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