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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 14

14                                                        CHAPTER ONE
laboratory tests."'8 This language was remarkably similar to contemporary
criticisms of wooden airplanes made by English, German, and American
engineers (see chapter three). Even Mumford praised the shift from wood to
metal and argued that even more progress would be achieved by substitut-
ing aluminum for iron.19
The identification of industrial progress with a shift from the organic to
the inorganic, and from wood to metal, contains a grain of truth. In other
words, it is mostly false. The increased use of iron during the nineteenth
century resulted from changes in the relative prices of iron and timber, due
largely to improved methods for smelting and refining iron. In countries
with ample supplies of timber, such as the United States, wood played a
much larger role in industrialization. Wood, furthermore, did not disap-
pear, especially as a structural material, where it found continued use in
bridges and buildings. As Gregory Dreicer has argued, wood remained the
preferred material for innovative designs in nineteenth-century truss
bridges.20 Wood itself became an industrial product, cut into standardized
shapes, peeled or sliced into thin veneers by massive machines, and steamed
into curved forms for quantity production. In the 1920s, Frank Lloyd
Wright acknowledged this industrial basis of wood, a material whose "finer
properties ... have been emancipated by the machine." Wright argued for
a new aesthetic of wood suited to modern civilization, but he remained
largely alone in his understanding of wood as a machine-age material.2'
The dichotomy of wood versus metal mirrored the opposition of tradition
and modernity. This opposition has been a fundamental tenet of the idea of
progress since the Enlightenment. Inspired in part by dramatic changes in
science and technology, the Enlightenment inaugurated the very concept of
modernity itself, along with the orientation toward the future that is the
hallmark of the modern age.22 Our modern technological civilization de-
pends on this orientation toward the future, because rapid change requires
a willingness to challenge ideas and practices based upon tradition. But this
orientation toward the future, this faith in progress, comes at a cost, becom-
ing a "prejudice against prejudice," to use Gadamer's phrase. This prejudice
against prejudice, this critique of tradition that denies the role of tradition
in critique, turned the Enlightenment's orientation toward the future into
the ideology of progress, the unquestioned faith in the unending improve-
ment of human civilization.23
The Enlightenment ideology of progress was modified in the nineteenth
century by the great technological transformations of industrialization. Ac-
cording to Leo Marx, "new mechanical inventions," especially the railroad,
"had the effect, as nothing else did, of certifying the reality of progress."
American popular culture seized upon the machine as undeniable evidence
of human progress. By the late nineteenth century, most Americans came to
define progress in material and technological terms, thus displacing earlier
moral and spiritual conceptions.24 In a preface to the American edition of

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