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

5. Metal and commercial aviation i: Henry Ford takes flight,   pp. [96]-113

Page 113

HENRY FORD TAKES FLIGHT                                            113
bending forces on the wing. Flat sheet, in contrast, could be stiffened inter-
nally to resist these bending stresses.42
In retrospect, the Ford Motor Company's involvement in commercial avi-
ation was clearly a failure. The company lost millions while contributing
little technically to the all-metal stressed-skin construction that came to
dominate passenger airplanes after 1933. Henry Ford viewed the problem
primarily in terms of production, but even here his engineering expertise
and vast financial resources proved unable to bring the construction costs of
metal airframes down to the level of composite types. Ford built nearly two
hundred trimotors, but even this push down the learning curve failed to
make metal airplanes a profitable business. Ford's failure resulted directly
from the progress ideology of metal, which blinded him to the difficult
problems involved in the efficient production of metal aircraft structures.43
Despite his eventual failure, Henry Ford's involvement in airplane pro-
duction did much to advance the cause of metal, especially in commercial
airplanes. The Ford company advertised its airplanes heavily, stressing the
advantages of all-metal construction. THIS IS THE DAY OF METAL, proclaimed
the headline of a 1928 Ford advertisement, which insisted with standard
prometal rhetoric that "all the experience of the past points to the necessity
of metal construction in vehicles for transportation." These advertisements
even repeated the oft-falsified claim that metal construction was fireproof.
The Ford advertisements argued that metal created the impression of safety
needed to attract paying customers, an important consideration in the early
days of air travel. Even at the time, observers recognized the significance of
Ford's prometal advertising. The authors of a 1930 investment analysis, for
example, refrained from endorsing either wood or metal construction. Nev-
ertheless, they noted that "the Ford advertising has created considerable
popular preference for metal airplanes. The factor to decide this question
may be advertising." Although Ford's advertising did not decide the ques-
tion, it did popularize the progress ideology of metal, cementing the associ-
ation between metal and progress and easing the way for other firms to
develop commercial metal airplanes.44
And metal airplanes did indeed benefit from the association between
metal and progress. While Henry Ford, the army and the navy were putting
millions into metal airplanes, a few manufacturers continued to develop
innovative wooden airplanes. But these innovators received very little help
from the federal research establishment, in sharp contrast to the tremen-
dous support received by developers of metal airplanes.

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