Lienhard 10-11

impact of society on technology
impact of technology on society
Another iconic technology of the modern era is the airplane.
Airplanes took longer to be practically useful than the automobile, but they were an important symbol of modernity from soon after the Wright Brothers first flight.  (Symbol--they had meaning to people beyond their practical usefulness)

Flight had a long prehistory before the Wright Brothers, but inventors who don't successfully market a product don't usually get credit
The first successful products were balloons
Early flight theory and experiments
So what was left for the Wright Brothers to do?
Langley Aerodrome No. 5 in
                flightLangley Aerodrome #5
The invention of the airplane: The Wright Brothers (video: the first filmed Wright brothers flight)
wing warping diagram
photo of Wright flyer 
 Wright Brothers flight, National Air and Space Museum
  • The Wright family gave the plane to the Smithsonian and "stuck one clause into that contract that said if the Smithsonian ever says anybody flew before the Wright brothers, we have the right to take the airplane back. That clause is in fact still in the contract," Crouch says. (source)

Flight was initially used more for entertainment than for practical purposes:
two acrobats standing on top of airplanes
In the era of amateur experiments and barnstorming, flight became a symbol of freedom
  • new technologies don't have a lot of rules yet and so often provide a way in for people who are discriminated against, such as women and African-Americans
  • women were involved in flight both as rich amateurs and in effect as a freak show--people would pay to see a woman do something they were bored with seeing men do
  • airplane builders came to support women pilots for the publicity, with its particular implication that aviation was safe.
  • Airplanes were a symbol of freedom to travel anywhere you wanted
  • Harriet Quimby was particularly talented at promoting herself and aviation at the same time
  • Bessie Coleman became a figure in the Harlem Renaissance and wanted to set up her own flying school for African-Americans

Flight inspired much good literature and became a symbol not just of freedom but of transcendence, speed, and intensity

Ch. 11

The popular view of the airplane was based on the idea that danger was fun--people for some years did not take flying seriously

Behind that:
the Wright brothers had a terrible time interesting anyone in their success--the U.S. military did not purchase its first plane until 1909
  • Europeans were more interested, and during World War I learned to use aircraft for reconnaissance, bombing, and fighting
  • when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, we lagged far behind in military aircraft
  • In the year before the U.S. declared war the U.S. aviation industry produced 411 planes, though a large number of airplane engines were shipped to Europe by one company partnership that had designed a good lightweight engine and techniques for mass-producing it (the Liberty Engine, Packard and Hall-Scott).
  • by the end of the war in 1919 the army had 5,500 planes, though most of the fighters were purchased in Europe.  The U.S. industry did successfully produce trainers, and many planes were in production when the war ended
French Spad WWI fighter
 French Spad WWI fighter--National Air and Space Museum

How did aviation make the transition from entertainment to transportation?  With a lot of government help, both subsidies like air mail service and for research

there was a need for research also, or at least coordination, and it almost instantly outgrew the resources of amateurs like the Wright brothers or even the small firms that were building aircraft.
  • The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics was one of a number of organizations created as a result of lobbying by scientists and engineers for a new government role in research and development in World War I.
  • President Wilson signed the naval appropriations bill that created the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in March 1915.  The scientists, engineers and enthusiasts who had lobbied for the bill for more than four years wanted government funding of aeronautical research to allow the United States to catch up with rapid developments in Europe.  But the legislation did not pass until the outbreak of war provided an additional push, and the bill did nothing more than create an advisory committee and provide it with a small appropriation.
NACA's first employee
  • The NACA then set out to invent its own role.  In its first few years the new Committee played a significant role in the wartime coordination of industry and used some of its small budget to sponsor research at private institutions, but its leaders made the building of a new laboratory their highest priority.  The laboratory at Langley Field, in Virginia, established the NACA as a federal research agency despite its title as an advisory committee.  After the war ended, debates over the role of the federal government in supporting and regulating aviation created considerable uncertainly about the future of the NACA, but the final result strengthened the Committee's emphasis on research because other aviation-related functions--regulation and the sponsorship of infrastructure--were assigned to the Department of Commerce.  The federal government also helped the aviation industry by funding air mail service.
  • At the Langley Memorial Laboratory, dedicated in June 1920, NACA scientists and engineers set out to invent a role for the federal government in peacetime aviation research.  The laboratory provided fairly up-to-date facilities: a wind tunnel, an engine-dynamometer laboratory, and a general research laboratory building.
  • The laboratory developed a focus on aeronautical principles both in order to take advantage of its wind tunnel facilities and to avoid competition with the military services (which wanted to maintain control of testing and setting specifications for new aircraft designs for miliary missions) and the National Bureau of Standards and industry (which had facilities for engine research).
  • The NACA found a niche not only in its choice of research program but also in how it approached research problems: "The strength of the NACA seems to be that it had the luxury of pursuing incrementally over a long period of time answers to problems that were of great interest to the commercial and military worlds."
  • The leaders of the NACA initially thought that the committee had to establish its reputation by scientific (not engineering) achievement, and hired Max Munk from Germany because of his theoretical reputation.  Munk made a key discovery, that by compressing the air in a tunnel you could use scale models in wind tunnels to provide results that would correlate with data from a full-sized plane in actual use.  This idea was put into use in a 5 foot diameter variable density tunnel in 1923, and then was followed by a 20 foot diameter tunnel for full scale research in 1927.
the NACA's first wind tunnel
 NACA's first wind tunnel
  • the NACA used the large tunnel for research on propellers, landing gear, and drag.  They discovered that the engine provide as much as 1/3 of the plane's total drag, and invented a way to cover the engine to enhance cooling while reducing drag.  During a test a plane that normally averaged 157 mph averaged 177 mph.  But this wasn't a theoretical breakthrough--each cowling was custom developed for a particular combination of airplane and engine by wind tunnel experiments.
detail from Rivera mural
detail from Diego Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Art
  • The necessity of practical results to justify federal funding and the dominant role of engineers on the NACA main committee gradually reversed that attitude, establishing the relationship between theoretical and practical research as a central tension within the laboratory and the agency as a whole.
At the end of World War I, the airplane had proved itself as a weapon but military aircraft weren't of much practical use
  • because there were more surplus airplanes than demand, production of new airplanes almost ceased until the government rescued the industry by creating an air mail service
  • Aeronautical Engineering began to develop as a field of study: in 1929 1400 students were studying aero-engineering in more than a dozen schools.
  • Meanwhile, aircraft design was developing in the 1920s and 1930s as the market finally began to expand again.
  • Ford trimotor of 1926--metal structure and cantilevered wing.

 Ford Trimotor, National Air and Space Museum
  • People began to predict that soon there would be an airplane in every garage
  • Aluminum propeller developed in 1925, and variable pitch propellers by the end of the decade.
  • The first successful helicopter flew in Germany in 1936; Russian emigre Igor Sikorsky had a U.S. design in tests by 1939 and got a contract from the army in 1940

 Sikorsky's first helicopter
The airplane became a symbol of how much the world had changed and an influence on modern design (see the book for more on this)

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
HIST 1220
last updated 10/11/19