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

3. Metal and its discontents,   pp. [44]-63

Page [44]

Metal and Its Discontents
WHY DID THE AVIATION COMMUNITY so enthusiastically embrace metal air-
planes in the early 1920s? The achievements of German designers hardly
seem to justify the reaction; their wartime metal airplanes demonstrated no
particular advantages over traditional construction, while suffering from
some obvious drawbacks. American wartime research provided even less
evidence in favor of metal. Nevertheless, French, British, and American en-
gineers began advocating metal construction before they had a chance to
study German airplanes in detail.
One certainly expects sellers of consumer goods to tout every new varia-
tion in their products as revolutionary, but engineers are supposed to be
swayed by hard technical arguments that allow them to match available
technical means with desired ends. Indeed, advocates of metal did advance
technical arguments to support their position. Yet when examined in detail,
these arguments prove equivocal. Throughout the 1920s, neither theory
nor experience could demonstrate the superiority of metal for airplane
Technical criteria cannot explain the enthusiastic support for metal con-
struction in the 1920s. Rather, this support derived from the culture of the
aeronautical community, its traditions, prejudices, and symbols. Within
this culture, metal symbolized progress and science, while wood repre-
sented stasis and craft practices. When combined with the period's powerful
faith in technological progress, these symbolic associations shaped the judg-
ments of engineers and airplane designers, justifying their belief in the in-
nate superiority of metal over wood and encouraging them to view the tri-
umph of metal as inevitable.
Technical Indeterminacy: Experience versus Rhetoric
Advocates of metal airplanes did not see any ambiguity in the choice. After
World War I, they launched a widespread campaign against wood in the
technical press, characterizing it as impermanent, imprecise, and unreliable,
having all the undesirable characteristics of organic products of nature. To
metal they ascribed all the permanence and precision of the inorganic mate-

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