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
(c1999)

1. Materials, symbols, and ideologies of progress,   pp. [3]-21


Page 7

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                       7
end of World War I to the end of World War I, metal almost completely
replaced wood. During World War I, the major combatants built approx-
imately 170,000 airplanes, almost all using wooden construction.9 Dur-
ing World War II, the major powers produced roughly 750,000 airplanes,
the vast majority with metal structures.' A comparable shift to metal oc-
curred in commercial aircraft. Only in small, private airplanes and military
trainers did wood retain its place as a structural material through World
War II.
Wood remained unchallenged as the dominant material for airplane
structures until late in World War I. In the typical airplane of the war, wood
comprised all major structural elements, with metal used only for fittings
and tension wires (figure 1.2). The wings consisted of two spruce spars
running the length of the wing, with wooden ribs placed crosswise to give
the wing its shape. Strong steel wire braced the resulting grid of spars and
ribs, creating a framework to support the linen cloth that formed the wing
surface. A similar rectangular frame of wooden struts, also wire braced,
formed the fuselage. Even the landing gear was likely to be of wood."
Despite the dominance of wood, early airplane designers had not ignored
metal. Even before the Kitty Hawk flights, airplane pioneers Maxim and
Langley had experimented with metal structures. The French airplane
builder Breguet began using steel in 1910, and other designers experi-
mented with the metal monocoque fuselage as early as 1912.12 Nevertheless,
on the eve of World War I no airplane in production had a metal structure.
Like many developments in aviation, the metal* airplane was a child of
World War I. Chapter two recounts these wartime origins, and the postwar
enthusiasm that ensued. Germany was the first nation to make widespread
use of metal in aircraft structures. Over a thousand German warplanes used
the welded steel-tube fuselage developed by Anthony Fokker. But a much
more potent symbol was the all-metal airplane of Hugo Junkers. Junkers'
first airplane used sheet iron, but in later models he switched to duralumin,
a high-strength alloy developed shortly before the war. By the end of the
war, Junkers and other German manufacturers had developed numerous
metal designs, and a few metal airplanes even made it into combat. The U.S.
Army also experimented with metal aircraft during the war, though with
less success than the Germans.
* In discussing the use of metal in aircraft, one needs to distinguish between all-metal
construction and the partial use of metal. The aeronautical community did not apply a consis-
tent terminology. "All-metal" generally referred to airplanes that used metal almost exclusively
for both the internal structure and the external covering, while the term "metal airplane" also
included aircraft with internal metal structures but fabric or wood covering. I follow this usage
in the book when referring to "all-metal" and "metal airplanes." Many airplanes, however, used
both wood and metal structures, for example a metal fuselage and wood wings. Such airplanes
were sometimes referred to as metal, at other times as wood, and sometimes as "composite." In
this book, "wooden airplane" or "wooden construction" refers to any airplane in which a major
part of the structure was made of wood.


Go up to Top of Page