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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 370-372

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Book Review

Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal: Culture and Technical Choice in American Airplane Materials, 1914-1945

Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal: Culture and Technical Choice in American Airplane Materials, 1914-1945. By Eric Schatzberg. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. xv+313. $49.50.

The airframe revolution came swiftly in the early 1930s, as aircraft took on their sleek, metallic, modern look. In 1927 all major aircraft were made mostly of wood. By 1932 every major new aircraft was built mostly of metal. [End Page 370] Following less than a decade of concentrated research and design experience, American aircraft makers completely replaced their material of choice.

Eric Schatzberg revisits the well-known contours of this airframe revolution, highlighting the problems inherent to metal that the designers overcame. In the United States, the army and navy invested in metal construction--through their own procurement programs, by following developments in Europe, and in directing the research work of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics--well ahead of any firm evidence it would work. Henry Ford likewise burned through millions of dollars to bring metal, his material of choice, into the air age. In the late 1920s the air arms finally procured some encouraging metal pursuit planes and bombers, which laid the foundations for the triumph of all-metal airliners, the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-1, DC-2, and DC-3. Schatzberg adds new information to this familiar story, pays close attention to the technology, and explores the relations between all the actors in the drama. Most important, he tells this story without a hint of heroism and undergirds it with a rhetorical question: Would it not have been easier just to work with wood?

Schatzberg's story actually starts during World War I, with wood performing well as the received material of choice for aircraft. Wood continued to evolve as an industrial material, offering aircraft makers two promising advances, plywood stressed-skin construction during the late 1920s and synthetic resin adhesives in the late 1930s. Schatzberg displays his historical skills in recovering the promise of these materials, and more so in using the active voice to portray their neglect. (Though, in an otherwise well-written book, his insistence on giving wood the benefit of the doubt sounds shrill at times.) His story ends with America's troublesome revival of wooden aircraft at the start of World War II, Britain's success with the all-wood Mosquito pursuit bomber, and an epilogue on the cultural conflict concerning recent efforts to make aircraft from composite materials.

Schatzberg mentions all the allied innovations fomenting the airframe revolution but focuses on one key technology: monocoque or stressed-skin airframe structures. Through careful archaeology of engineering solutions to buckling stress, he contrasts what designers said about the inherent strengths of wood and metal with the assumptions they acted upon. Similarly, he mentions industrial and operational issues--material cost, availability, manufacture--but focuses on the maintenance practices needed to assure the integrity of the materials.

That this book is a major contribution to the history of aircraft, though, is incidental. It is a greater contribution to the cultural history of technology. The rise of the airplane paralleled the rise of the American bureaucratic state, and Schatzberg's work, like so much other recent scholarship on aircraft, uses the wealth of diverse archival materials to craft a finely textured argument around larger historiographic themes. Schatzberg skillfully interweaves concerns important to readers of Technology and Culture: [End Page 371] failed technologies, engineering epistemologies, economic path dependency, military influence during episodes of technological indeterminacy.

The success of this book as a historiographic pacesetter depends on how one reads chapter 3, in which Schatzberg describes the cultural constructs that determined the triumph of metal over wood. Using mostly the contemporary trade press and terse conclusions in technical and procurement reports, he portrays the symbolic structure of metal's ideology of progress. Metal carried the mystique of modernism, science...


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