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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 12

12                                                        CHAPTER ONE
other.'3 This distinction is crucial to understanding the historical emer-
gence of the progress ideology of metal, for while the form of early airplanes
represented modernity, their use of wood symbolized tradition.
The specific linking of metal with modernity and wood with tradition was
the product of nineteenth-century industrialization. But the connection be-
tween materials and the march of history was not new. The classical Greek
tradition had its Gold, Bronze, and Iron ages; nineteenth-century archaeol-
ogy converted these ages into a progressive schema by substituting stone for
gold. By the late nineteenth century, industrial civilization had become in-
creasingly characterized by a shift from the organic to the inorganic. Writ-
ing at the turn of the century, Werner Sombart gave this idea formal expres-
sion in his Moderne Kapitalismus. Sombart viewed the displacement of wood
by metal as part of the general trend "toward the economic emancipation of
men from the limits of organic nature." Lewis Mumford continued this line
of analysis in the early 1930s, using materials and power sources to identify
three major epochs in the history of technology: the Eotechnic age of wood
and water power; the Paleotechnic age of coal, iron, and steam; and the
Neotechnic age of synthetic materials and electricity.14
With the growing use of iron and steel in bridges, buildings, and ships,
wood became increasingly identified as a traditional material antithetical to
the onward march of the industrial age (figure 1.3). Aesthetic critics of in-
dustrialism like John Ruskin and William Morris praised the virtues of
wood and stone while condemning the new techniques for mass-produced
ornament, such as cast iron. Anticipating Sombart, Ruskin also saw in the
industrial age a shift from the organic to the inorganic, a shift Ruskin con-
demned.5 Emerson, in contrast, welcomed the new materials as harbingers
of material progress: "Who would live in the stone age or the bronze or the
iron or the lacustrine? Who does not prefer the age of steel, of gold, of coal,
petroleum, cotton, steam, electricity, and the spectroscope?"'6 The utopian
literature of the late nineteenth century reflected this association of new
materials with progress. Aluminum was one of the most prominently fea-
tured technologies in utopian fiction, along with high-speed trains and elec-
tricity Aluminum forged an especially durable link with progress, first
through its identification with scientific chemistry and later by virtue of its
dependence on the magical power of electricity, another powerful symbol of
progress. 7
The symbolic connection between inorganic materials and progress in-
tensified in the early twentieth century Wood had no place in machine-
age aesthetics. Modernist architects turned Ruskin on his head, rejecting
traditional materials as unsuited to "machines for living." Le Corbusier was
typically strident on this issue, praising the influence of industry on mate-
rials of construction. The first step in the industrial transformation of build-
ings, claimed Le Corbusier, was "the replacement of heterogeneous and
unreliable natural materials by homogenous artificial materials subject to

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