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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 846-847

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Book Review

Helicopters before Helicopters

Helicopters before Helicopters. By E. K. Liberatore. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1998. Pp. viii+298; illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, index. $58.50.

E. K. Liberatore has produced a marvelous reference work on the early history of rotary-wing aviation in the United States. It also succeeds as a history of technology by providing engaging snapshots of the process of invention. Concepts, ideas, and patents related to vertical-lift machines are presented in chronologically arranged vignettes that provide insights into the social, economic, and cultural frameworks in which the inventors of these designs operated. As one would expect from the title, the author's focus is on developments before the flight of the first true helicopter in 1936. Liberatore, an aeronautical engineer with a longstanding interest in the history of rotorcraft, has restructured and updated his research from an eighteen-volume series produced for the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s to create this volume.

Helicopters before Helicopters is arranged into four roughly chronological sections. The first chapter details the theoretical evolution of the helicopter from ancient times until the eighteenth century. Liberatore adroitly [End Page 846] delves into the stimulation many inventors and artisans received by observing the action of simple rotational flying toys throughout ancient and early modern times. The next two chapters revolve around his primary theme, the early development of rotary-wing aircraft in the United States. According to Liberatore, efforts in the nineteenth century were primarily devoted to conceptual development. He meticulously details various designs proposed by famous and not-so-famous inventors. With the advent of successful fixed-wing flight by the Wright brothers, the focus of inventors shifted from speculative design to the development of human-carrying prototypes. The final chapter poses a comparison between the development of fixed-wing aviation and rotary-wing aviation from a systems engineering perspective. This chapter also includes a discussion of the future of helicopter development based on broad comparisons with past achievements in aeronautical engineering.

Eight appendixes provide a wealth of useful information. There are listings of other rotary-wing research projects not detailed in the rest of the book and of entrants in the helicopter contests sponsored by the Air Ministry in Britain starting in 1923. There is a list of patents, a list of all the publications of the Rotary Wing Handbooks and History series sponsored by the air force, upon which Helicopters before Helicopters is based, and a list of modern helicopter organizations. A technical reference section and a wonderful glossary conclude the book.

Although the middle two chapters are the heart of this book, many historians of technology may find the epilogue more engaging. Here Liberatore, borrowing heavily from Thomas Kuhn, describes the process of engineering innovation over a long period of time that led to the first successful helicopter. His thoughtful analysis adds depth to his discussions of powerplant limitations in the nineteenth century and rotor development in the early twentieth. My only criticism concerns the failure to analyze conflicting claims about the designs of Heinrich Focke and those of Louis Bréguet and René Dorand, and also the early designs of Bell and Sikorsky, but no doubt Libertore considered these matters beyond the scope of this book. The beauty of his approach is that his stories are richly detailed and understandable without technical detail, but that such detail is readily available too. I highly recommend this book for historians of aviation and technology.

John Terino

Major Terino, of the United States Air Force, is assigned to the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He was an assistant professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy and is currently finishing his dissertation in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

* Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.



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