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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 53

METAL AND ITS DISCONTENTS                                         53
examined both European and American airplane construction, found "all-
metal construction ... much more expensive than mixed construction." In
1932 the plant manager of the Boeing Airplane Company reported that all-
metal fuselages cost Boeing twice as much as fabric-covered types when
produced in the same quantities. Preliminary studies at Boeing indicated
that all-metal wings would also cost twice as much as those built of wood
and fabric. As late as 1939, large metal airplanes still required twice as
many hours of labor per airframe pound as typical wood-and-fabric biplanes
of 1922, despite the widespread application of machine tools to metal air-
plane production during the 1930s. Large-scale production in World War II
lowered these costs considerably, but even then all-wood designs like the
de Havilland Mosquito cost no more to produce than comparable metal
Metal failed to live up to expectations for cheaper production because
these expectations rested on two demonstrably false premises: first, that
wood was unsuited to quantity production, and second, that airplanes
would follow the paradigm of mass production in the automobile industry
From the early nineteenth century, inventors and entrepreneurs had ap-
plied specialized machinery and systematized procedures to the large-scale
production of wooden products. Woodworking machinery provided the
foundation for the first system approximating the modern concept of mass
production, the Royal Navy's pulley-block factories at Portsmouth. This
well-publicized system had a daily production capacity of 1,420 wooden
pulley blocks, all manufactured with steam-powered machines that pro-
duced interchangeable parts using little skilled labor. In the 1850s the Aus-
trian firm Thonet Brothers was building fifty thousand pieces of bentwood
furniture annually at a single factory, and in the early 1880s the Singer
Manufacturing Company was manufacturing nearly one million plywood
sewing-machine cabinets each year. More complex structures also proved
amenable to "mass" production. By 1895 Studebaker Brothers had become
the largest manufacturer of wagons and carriages in the United States, with
an annual output reaching seventy-five thousand vehicles. In the 1920s, a
British manufacturer applied mass-production methods to wooden railroad
cars, reducing manufacturing time from six weeks to six days.29
The natural variability of wood may indeed have limited the rigorous
application of Fordist mass production methods. But airplanes never had
any prospect of being produced in quantities comparable to automobiles,
except in the delusions of aviation enthusiasts. Annual production of Ford's
Model T peaked at 1.8 million units in 1925, while the entire U.S. airplane
industry produced only 45,201 airplanes of all models in the twenty years
from 1920 to 1939. Even during World War II, production runs for military
models rarely exceeded ten thousand for the entire war, and Fordist mass

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