University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
History of Science and Technology

Page View

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 6

inevitable outcome of prior developments. Yet any satisfactory explanation
of technological change requires as much attention to failure as to success.
It is only through attention to failures that historians can isolate the factors
that led to the successful alternative.7
In telling this story of both failure and success, technical details matter.
These details are necessary to understand the struggles of engineers trying
to make airplanes conform to the metallic ideal, struggles that reveal the
influence of ideology on technical choice. At times, this influence is directly
apparent in the rhetoric of engineers, airplane designers, manufacturers,
and military officers, who openly expressed their prejudices against wood.
More often, though, I have had to uncover this influence through the careful
analysis of technical arguments about airplane structures, manufacturing
methods, durability, and strength of materials. I have done my best to make
this analysis accessible to nontechnical readers. At the same time, I have
tried to include enough detail to satisfy aviation experts, though in general
I have leaned toward accessibility
My account centers on a specific technical community, that of American
aviation.8 Although all the major aviation powers participated in the shift to
metal, American manufacturers developed the first truly successful air-
planes using all-metal, stressed-skin structures, which became the domi-
nant form of metal construction by World War I. This American lead was
not very great, however. Aviation technology was thoroughly international
in the interwar period, in part because of its military potential, which en-
couraged governments and manufacturers to keep close tabs on technical
developments in other countries. Furthermore, there was no shortage of
enthusiasm for metal in Germany, France, and Britain. Nevertheless, I have
chosen to focus on a specific national community because the problems
involved in the choice of airplane materials differed from country to coun-
try These differences arose in part because of variations in resource endow-
ments: Britain, for example, had little aircraft timber, limited domestic
sources of aluminum, but ample supplies of steel. At the same time, the
meanings of materials also varied with national context, as demonstrated by
Canadian support for wooden airplanes during World War II (see chapter
ten). I have, therefore, only examined the experience of other countries
when it directly influenced events in the United States, or when it provides
contrasts that elucidate American developments.
From Wood to Metal
This book examines the displacement of wood by metal as the dominant
material for airplane structures between the world wars. No heroic inven-
tions explain the shift, although numerous small innovations contributed
to the success of metal. Nevertheless, in the twenty-seven years from the

Go up to Top of Page