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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 843-845

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Book Review

Innovation and the Development of Flight

Innovation and the Development of Flight. Edited by Roger D. Launius. College Station, Tex.: Texas A&M University Press, 1999. Pp. x+335; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $44.95.

Americans have always been enamored of technology, seeing it as a solution to a host of problems and challenges, only some of which are technological in origin. For the first half of the twentieth century, aircraft seemed to epitomize this fascination with machines. The Lindbergh flight of 1927 captivated the public imagination, and varying combinations of individuals, governments, businesses, and the military contributed their all to the emerging field of aviation. Yet the growth of aviation was neither uniform nor predictable. A host of human, technical, economic, cultural, political, legal, and psychological factors shaped its evolution. Roger Launius's Innovation and the Development of Flight presents a dozen case studies dealing with various [End Page 843] aspects of aviation development in order to demonstrate the interplay of the complex and sometimes competing factors that led to innovation.

Launius, the chief historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has written an excellent introduction to this volume. He notes that flight "represented the triumph of humanity over the environment" (p. 4), but asks why aeronautical technology took the shape that it did. People certainly played a key role. Launius argues, for example, that America has tended to produce better engineers than scientists--practitioners rather than theorists--and that this profoundly influenced how aviation evolved. If Americans were not the first in some areas of aeronautical advance, they were generally the most effective and efficient. But institutions as well as people have been engines of change, and the decisions of governments, manufacturers, airline companies, and the military also had a major influence. The case studies chosen to illustrate these factors cover topics ranging from the failure of the Langley aerodrome in 1903 to the evolution of the airliner, from such technical topics as engine, instrument, and fuel development to an interesting discussion of the rise and fall of the private light aircraft. The authors of these diverse chapters are a mix of old faces and new, with varying degrees of writing and research skill. Some of the essays are based on primary sources, while others are merely a rehash of secondary literature. Some are clear and straightforward, while others are obtuse and technical. Besides being of mixed quality, they are also, in some cases, unusually focused.

Although the book aims at universal applicability, nine of its twelve chapters deal exclusively with American subjects. Some of the topics discussed--the siting and growth of municipal airfields, the infrastructure of the Royal Air Force--are not truly technological at all, and thus the linkage between these subjects and innovation is far from clear. Although eleven chapters cover events up through World War II, the last essay leaps forward four decades to look at the aborted attempt to build a National Aerospace Plane in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of this diversity, the subject of innovation is scarcely mentioned, at least not in the philosophical context established by Launius. Instead, we have machines simply evolving, sometimes because of personal intervention and sometimes because of economic, bureaucratic, or political imperatives. There is little explanation, however, as to why things happened as they did. Indeed, most of the chapters are simple historical narratives, with little analysis and even less reference to the theoretical issues raised in the introduction. In short, there is no overarching thesis that holds this book together. Moreover, there is no concluding chapter that summarizes the arguments made or that attempts to draw a coherent picture of the innovation process.

Even so, there are some excellent pieces here: William M. Leary on the development of the instrument landing system, Stephen L. McFarland on [End Page 844] the impact of high octane fuel on engine performance, Michael J. Neufeld's overview of the German rocket plane program, and Tom Crouch's essay on light aircraft. Overall, this is...


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