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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 [3]

Materials, Symbols, and Ideologies
of Progress
IN 1989 the Ripley's Sunday comic strip featured the British Mosquito com-
bat airplane (figure 1.1), which
during World War II ... was one of the fastest planes in existence. The photo-
graphic reconnaissance version of this aircraft . . . was able to fly non-stop over
Europe so high it was neither seen nor heard. It was constructed entirely of
Believe it or not!1
Ripley's claim is accurate and even understates the Mosquito's success in
combat against metal aircraft.2 Ripleys does not seek to provide historical
instruction, however, but rather to evoke surprise and disbelief. Why
should a successful airplane with a wood structure evoke surprise and dis-
belief? The reason lies in the symbolic meanings that our modern techno-
logical culture associates with different materials. Wood symbolizes pre-
industrial technologies and craft traditions, while metal represents the
industrial age, technical progress, and the primacy of science. The airplane
is one of the defining technologies of the twentieth century, the age of sci-
ence-based industry The wooden airplane is thus a symbolic contradiction,
representing both science and craft, modernity and tradition.
A simple argument lies at the heart of this book. The symbolic meanings
of airplane materials influenced more than just cultural perceptions; they
also shaped the technical history of the airplane, promoting the shift from
wood to metal between the world wars. Wood remained the dominant mate-
rial for airplane structures throughout World War I, although a few metal
airplanes did appear near the end of the war. After the armistice, advocates
of metal airplanes challenged the hegemony of wood, advancing technical
arguments for replacing wood with steel and aluminum alloys. But at the
same time, these advocates also elaborated new cultural meanings for air-
plane materials. Proponents of metal drew upon existing symbolism to link
metal with progress, modernity, and science, while associating wood with
backwardness, tradition, and craft methods.
These symbolic associations gained their significance from a set of beliefs
deeply embedded within the aviation community-the ideology of techno-
logical progress. This ideology posited the inevitable progress of technology

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