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  • Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States by Hermione Giffard
  • Alex Roland (bio)
Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States.
By Hermione Giffard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 336. $45.

This provocative, iconoclastic monograph stands on its head one of the foundational paradigms of this journal and the Society for the History of Technology. For almost sixty years, this community has agreed that modern technological change follows a linear arc from invention through development to innovation. Some members of the SHOT/T&C community have challenged that received wisdom, but it has nonetheless held up remarkably well. Inventors (canonically heroic geniuses) introduce new ideas, which are then developed to the point that they work in practice. Then producers innovate to adapt the development to the marketplace.

Hermione Giffard argues that this narrative fails to explain the way in which turbojet engines were produced during World War II in Britain, Germany, and the United States. Therefore, she says, it fails to explain the shape of postwar aviation. Production, she argues, had a greater impact on turbojet development during the war than the heroic inventors who pioneered its introduction. In keeping with this thesis, she tells the familiar story backward. Chapter 1 offers an overview of production in these three countries during the war, noting that Germany, which began production last, produced the most and the worst engines, while the United States began development last and produced the fewest engines overall. Chapter 2, the longest and densest, examines in fine grain the multiple companies in the three countries pursuing the two main design trajectories—radial- and axial-flow turbojets—and their countless subsidiary variations. Chapter 3 investigates the institutions—Power Jets and the Heinkel Aircraft Company—that housed the canonical “inventors” of the turbojet, Frank Whittle in Britain and Hans von Ohain in Germany, noting that neither inventor succeeded in getting his designs into production. Chapter 4 traces the propaganda and historiography that fueled the myth of these heroic, lone inventors.

The success of other manufacturers, says Giffard, was largely due to their rootedness in the existing aero-engine industry. Previous work on piston engines and components such as turbochargers prepared that industry to excel in the transition to turbojets. Veterans of aero-engine manufacture brought to their task experience, tacit knowledge, craft techniques, institutional infrastructure, business acumen, shop-floor culture, and patterns of collaboration and communication that prepared them to move more quickly than other individuals and institutions through the many steps of design, testing, problem-solving, and tweaking required to transform a good idea into a serviceable machine. [End Page 878]

Along the way, Giffard introduces or refines several conceptual schemes. She adopts the term “concurrency” to explain the back-and-forth flow of ideas between inventors and developers and producers, the same term that would later be used in aerospace environments to describe the process of developing components in parallel before integrating them in a single product. She uses the term “transition narrative” to describe the displacement of the heroic inventor in the second half of the twentieth century by the collective industrial research laboratory. And she offers two alternatives to the invention-development-innovation paradigm. At one point she suggests “invention, development, and production” (p. 7), and at another she advances the more radical “expectation, production, development, and innovation” (p. 2). The latter captures more fully the flavor of her model. “Production,” she says, “is integral to the creation of the jet engine” (p. 7). Her book suggests that she sees it as more than integral; she sees it as dominant.

In one sense, this is a quintessential historian’s book. Historians find what they go looking for. Other students of this topic have focused on economics, demand-pull, science, paradigm shifts, patronage, and other variables. Giffard focuses on production, arguing implicitly that production has more explanatory power than other variables. Of course, this conclusion depends as well on what one wants to explain, but there is no denying that this new lens significantly alters our understanding of this topic. It not only highlights the importance of industry in technological change, it...


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