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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 5

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                   5
high-performance airplanes by the start of World War II. Thus, military
influence supplies the second major theme for this book.3
Culture and power are not independent variables, however. Without the
military's power to command scarce resources, symbolic meanings could
never have provided the technical and financial support that metal airplanes
needed. Yet without the cultural authority provided by these symbolic
meanings, military personnel would have found it difficult to justify their
persistent support for the new technology. In the shift from wood to metal
airplanes, culture and power were intertwined.4
The shift from wood to metal did not occur solely on a terrain of mean-
ings but also in the material world. This world did not always conform to
the meanings imposed on it. Metal airplanes, for example, did not prove as
cheap, durable, and fireproof as proponents originally claimed. When dis-
crepancies arose between meanings and the material world, sometimes the
meanings yielded, as when engineers finally acknowledged that airplanes
cost more to produce with metal than with wood. At other times the mate-
rial world proved more malleable, transformed by the ingenuity of engi-
neers, designers, and scientists. In some instances, the discrepancies be-
tween meanings and the material world persisted, as in the case of fire
safety, which was repeatedly invoked as an advantage for metal despite con-
siderable evidence that aluminum airplanes were no safer than wooden
My account of the shift from wood to metal airplanes, therefore, involves
interactions among culture, power, and the material world. By focusing on
the role of culture and power, my account differs fundamentally from the
standard technical histories of the airplane, which portray the shift to metal
as a key step in the technical progress of aviation. The standard histories are
classic exercises in Whig historiography, judging the past in terms of its
contribution to the present. The heroes of this standard story are the pio-
neers and prophets of the victorious path that led to the all-metal stressed-
skin airliners developed in the United States during the early 1930s. In ef-
fect, the standard account accepts at face value the arguments advanced by
proponents of the victorious path. These technical histories do little more
than codify the aviation community's own mythology, and thus cannot eval-
uate the basic assumptions of that community6
Constructing this new account involves more than just reinterpreting ex-
isting historical data with greater sensitivity to nontechnical factors; it also
requires work to uncover the lost history of unsuccessful airplanes. In the
history of technology, failed machines and abandoned projects far outnum-
ber the successes, but these failures are for the most part obliterated from
the historical record, left ignored in dusty archives like old cars in an aban-
doned junkyard. The progressivist history of tpchnology discourages atten-
tion to failed alternatives, focusing instead on the steps leading directly to
the successful technology, making the victorious technology appear as the

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