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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 15

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                  1)
J. B. Bury's classic study of the idea of progress, Charles A. Beard chided
Bury for neglecting the role of technology. "Technology is the fundamental
basis of modern civilization, supplies a dynamic force of inexorable drive,
and indicates the methods by which the progressive conquest of nature can
be effected."25
Beard's clear articulation of the ideology of technological progress was a
response to growing criticism of "machine civilization."26 Such criticism
had little influence within the engineering profession, where faith in tech-
nological progress provided an essential element of professional identity In
speech after speech, argues Edwin Layton, engineers claimed "that their
group had a unique and vital role to play in social progress." At the same
time, engineers wrapped themselves in the mantle of "science," in part to
distinguish their expertise from the traditional knowledge of craft workers.
Science and progress thus formed a central part of the professional identity
of the engineer.27
Engineers proved particularly receptive to the rhetoric linking metal and
progress. For mechanical engineers especially, "wood was anathema to the
ideals of precision, power and production" that defined the profession and
clearly distinguished engineers from millwrights and carpenters. Craft skills
remained essential for working with metal as well as wood, but metal's uni-
formity made it attractive to engineers designing tasks for less-skilled work-
ers, especially in mass-production industries. For civil engineers, the highly
visible monuments of Victorian engineering, especially the great metal
bridges, created prominent symbols linking metal with technical progress.28
When American engineers entered aviation in large numbers during World
War I, displacing the self-taught designers who had previously dominated
the fledgling industry, they brought with them their prejudices against
wood in engineering structures.
It was these engineers, faced with the clash between the modernity of
aviation and the traditionalism of wood, who clearly articulated the prog-
ress ideology of metal. This ideology provided aviation engineers with an
interpretive framework that made sense of the contradictory symbols of the
wooden airplane, while resolving the indeterminacy of the choice between
wood and metal. These engineers decided, in effect, that the future of air-
planes lay with metal, and they took the necessary steps to make this future
a reality.
Indeterminacy, Symbolism, and Ideology:
Theoretical Implications
My account of the shift from wood to metal airplanes raises a number of
methodological issues of broad significance to the history of technology
Most centrally, my interpretation seeks to bring culture into hardware

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