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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 11

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                  11
Mosquito, one of the best combat airplanes of the war, which convincingly
demonstrated the untapped technical potential of wooden construction.
Nevertheless, the wartime revival of the wooden airplane proved tempo-
rary; wood found few places in the postwar world of jet aircraft and guided
The book concludes with an epilogue on the recent development of non-
metallic materials for airplanes structures. These "composite" materials
have recently emerged as major challengers to light alloys in airplane struc-
tures. Composites have more in common with wood than metal and in a
very real sense represent a continuation of the alternative path started by
molded plywood airplanes. The origins of composite materials lie in re-
search on fiber-reinforced plastics during the 1930s, research directly linked
to studies of resin-bonded wood veneers. The new nonmetallic composites
have long lost any association with wood, but symbolic meanings still play
a role in the competition between composites and metal. Until the mid-
1960s, "fiber-reinforced plastics" had been the accepted technical term for
the materials now called "composites." The shift in terminology represents
a clear attempt to control the symbolic meaning of the new materials, to
disassociate "composites" from the negative connotations of "plastics."
Materials and Symbolic Meanings in History
The progress ideology of metal arose in the early 1920s as a response to
specific problems of airplane design. This ideology was local to the commu-
nity of aviation at this particular historical moment, yet it was not without
a broader history, having emerged from a synthesis of two related aspects of
modern industrial culture. The first aspect concerns the symbolism of in-
dustrial materials that preceded the airplane, in particular the tendency to
characterize historical periods by specific materials. But these symbolic
meanings only assumed their significance within another aspect of indus-
trial culture, the ideology of technological progress that arose in the nine-
teenth century
The symbolism of materials plays a role in every technological artifact.
According to Robert Friedel, artifacts convey cultural meanings not just
through their form but also by their materials. Different materials have dif-
ferent symbolic meanings, or 'values' in Friedel's terminology. These values
are in no sense inherent in the material themselves but are relative to a
specific cultural context. Even the functional characteristics of materials are
culturally relative, for function is, according to David Pye, nothing more
than collective agreement about the proper use of a thing. Friedel notes,
furthermore, that the values associated with materials are distinct from the
values associated with an artifact, although they obviously influence each

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