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

8. Metal and commercial aviation ii: the triumph of the all-metal airliner,   pp. [155]-174

Page 174

The Douglas company's emphasis on the DC-I's similarities to the Alpha
was a useful sales strategy, since it permitted the sales staff to argue that the
DC-1 wing structure had already proven reliable in airline service with the
The success of the DC series marked the arrival of metal construction as
a mature technology. Decades of refinements brought no fundamental
changes to the airframes of commercial airplanes. Today's jet airliners use
improved aluminum alloys and new production techniques and are de-
signed with more sophisticated methods of stress analysis, but their struc-
tures clearly hark back to the DC-1 and other all-metal airplanes of the
mid-1930s.16 Only recently has metal's hegemony in large airliners been
challenged by a new generation of composite materials; these new materials
have more in common with wood than metal (see the epilogue).
The triumph of the metal airliner in the 1930s suggests that metal had
clearly proven its superiority to wood, at least with respect to the technical
practices then available for airplane construction. In a sense this superiority
was quite real, especially once metal became dominant and thus benefited
from an accumulation of practical experience in design, manufacturing, and
maintenance. Perhaps the success of the metal airplane resulted simply
from the inherent technical superiority of metal over wood. As this and
earlier chapters have shown, however, the "inherent" technical characteris-
tics of metal only emerged as the product of sustained human efforts to
transform the material world. Due to the prejudices of the engineering com-
munity, as embodied in the progress ideology of metal, metal construction
benefited from a considerably higher level of effort than wood in the realiza-
tion of its supposedly inherent characteristics. Still, the aeronautical com-
munity never completely abandoned wood, and a number of firms con-
tinued to improve wood construction even after the triumph of the metal
airliner. These efforts gained renewed vigor with the introduction of syn-
thetic resin adhesives in the early 1930s.

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