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

2. Engineering enthusiasm: World War I and the origins of the metal airplane,   pp. [22]-43

Page [22]

Engineering Enthusiasm:
World War I and the Origins of
the Metal Airplane
ACCORDING TO MOST aviation historians, the trend toward all-metal airplane
structures began in Germany during World War I. Indeed, German engi-
neers designed and built the first metal airplanes produced in quantity and
used in service. German engineers also built several all-metal airplanes with
stressed-skin structures, anticipating what became the dominant system of
airplane design. Yet the precise German contribution to all-metal construc-
tion remains ambiguous. The first truly successful airplanes with stressed-
skin, all-metal structures were American not German.1
Yet Germany contributed more than technical advances to the develop-
ment of all-metal airplanes. German work in metal construction, when it
became known after the end of the war, generated a wave of enthusiasm for
metal airplanes among Germany's former enemies, especially the United
States. Americans had also worked on metal aircraft during the war, but this
work sparked none of the excitement that greeted the first German all-metal
airplanes in the United States.
German Metal Airplanes of World War I
Germany began World War I with some 450 warplanes, compared to 600
for the French and just 160 for the British. Initially the combatants used
airplanes only for reconnaissance, but they soon developed techniques for
air-to-air combat, tactical ground support and strategic bombing. As expec-
tations of a short war proved unfounded, air power assumed an increasingly
important role in the conflict, and the major powers launched programs to
produce airplanes on a large scale. These programs transformed fledgling
companies into massive enterprises supported by government-run research
and engineering establishments. In a long war, Germany had no hope of
matching the Entente's capacity for aircraft production. German industrial
inferiority placed a premium on the search for technological superiority
Germany's wartime development of metal airplanes was part of this search
for technical advantage, a search that grew increasingly desperate as the war
dragged on.2

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