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

4. An old role for the military: government support for metal airplane construction,   pp. [64]-95

Page 95

AN OLD ROLE FOR THE MILITARY                                          95
One year after Gillett had presented his findings on aluminum-coated
duralumin to the NACA Materials Committee, Alcoa announced its solu-
tion to the intercrystalline corrosion problem-Alclad. Alclad consisted of
duralumin bonded to a thick coating of pure aluminum, which was applied
to the duralumin ingot before it was rolled into sheets, precisely as de-
scribed in Gillett's patent application. Alcoa announced Alclad in a paper
presented by Edgar H. Dix, an Alcoa metallurgist, to the annual aircraft
conference held at the NACNS Langley laboratory on May 24, 1927. Dix's
paper did not acknowledge the work of the Bureau of Standards. In a clear
attempt to assert Alcoa's priority, Dix claimed that Alcoa had conducted
unsuccessful experiments with pure aluminum coatings as early as 1921.
These experiments had nothing to do with intercrystalline corrosion, how-
ever, since the problem was not identified until three years later. H. W
Gillett and other researchers at the bureau clearly felt slighted by Dix. In a
letter written three days after the announcement of Alclad, Gillett and his
colleague H. L. Whittemore wrote to the NACA, insisting that the bureau
had done the "fundamental work on the adaptability of aluminum coatings
for duralumin." They credited Alcoa with solving the "second step, the
working out of the commercial difficulties.'88
The bureau's scientists appear justified in their priority claim. Zay Jef-
fries, head of metallurgical research at Alcoa, was a member of the NACA
Materials Committee and had been an active participant at the May 1926
meeting where Gillett announced the results of his aluminum coating tests.
The Materials Committee received updates on the bureau's work at every
meeting, giving Alcoa privileged access to this research. Dix himself admit-
ted in an internal Alcoa memo that Gillett's experiments had helped inspire
Alclad. Nevertheless, Alcoa did its best to present Alclad as a triumph of
industrial research. In reality, a direct line runs from the military to Alclad.
It was the product of federal research at the Bureau of Standards, research
initiated and funded by the military89 As chapter six will show, the govern-
ment's support for this research bore almost no relation to the contempo-
rary importance of duralumin in aviation; this support was based almost
entirely on faith in the future role of metal.
In the early 1930s, Alclad would provide an essential element for the
development of commercial airplanes with all-metal structures. But even
before the development of Alclad, airplane manufacturers attempted to
develop metal airplanes for commercial use. These attempts foundered on
the same shoals that sunk the military's metal airplane projects. Without
substantial military support, even the wealthiest corporations in America
proved unable to turn metal airplanes into a profitable business.

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