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Technology and the History of Aeronautics: An Essay

Dr. James R. Hansen

Professor of History, Auburn University

The history of aeronautical technology concerns much more than just the nuts and bolts of airplanes and spacecraft. It involves much more than just the history of propellers and wings, more than the history of landing gear and jet engines, more than the ornithology of P-51s and F-22s, or the genealogy of X-planes. The history of flight technology is just as much a story of people and ideas as are histories dealing with any other topic related to society and culture. Without question, scholars who write about the history of flight technology have a lot to say about the research, design, building, flying, maintaining, and utilizing of aerospace vehicles, but their studies are no less human, no less connected to social or political or aesthetic forces, because they deal with technical things.

The history of aeronautical technology tells us a lot about our existence as a thinking, dreaming, planning, scheming, aspiring, and playful species. As aerospace industry analysts William D. Siuru and John D. Busick have noted in relation to their study of the evolution of modern aircraft technology, humankind's journey through the ages has been not only eased and accelerated, but also complicated by our unique and irrepressible knack for technology and invention. From the stone ax and clay pot of prehistory to the electron microscope, computer, and spacecraft of the 20th century, our technological creations have been ingenious, phenomenal, and occasionally—for good and for ill—of world shaking significance.

This is, by all means, true for the airplane, one of the most ingenious and phenomenal—if slow-to-come—inventions in our history, and surely one of the most world-shaking. In how many ways has the flying machine changed society? As Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote in 1939, it has "unveiled for us the true face of the Earth." It has brought people together. It has changed our economy. It has added an unprecedented new dimension to warfare. It has affected such things as government, public administration, international relations, international policies, manufacturing, marketing, mining, cities, real estate, media, railroads, ocean shipping, agriculture, forestry, and much more. It has affected population, the family, religion, health, recreation, education, crime, even sex.

And it has not been all for the good, of course. What ever is "all good"? In the 90 years from the tragic death of Lt. Thomas Selfridge in Orville Wright's airplane at Fort Myers, Virginia, in 1908 to the Swissair disaster off Nova Scotia in summer of 1998, there has never been a time when aviation did not know terrible accidents. Aviation has also raised human conflict to new heights (or depths) of destruction. Despite this, the flying machine has always inspired "great expectations"—perhaps too great given that it is, after all, just one of our many machines. Orville Wright himself summed up our loftiest ambitions for aviation when he said that it had been his hope (and that of brother Wilbur) that they were giving the world "an invention which would make further wars practically impossible." Unfortunately, history proved them wrong, and it did not take long to do it. As much as we admire the "Bishop's Boys" for their dream of a benevolent instrument of global peace, we are equally astonished by how such extraordinarily clear and logical thinkers could have been so ordinarily naive about the forces in the world around them. Maybe someday their vision will be proved right, and the world will discover, as the Wrights did, that peace, like flight, requires not brute power, but control and balance.

Contrary to what many engineers, most technocrats, and the great majority of industrial entrepreneurs seem to believe; contrary to people who use the internet to read the morning paper, or to golfers who cannot enjoy a round of golf without riding in an electric golf cart and swinging a $500 titanium-headed driver; contrary to what many people in modern consumer society seem to believe, technology is not inherently good. In the words of one of the founding fathers of the history of technology as a discipline, Melvin C. Kranzberg, "technology is [actually] neither good, nor bad, nor is it neutral." Kranzberg called this "The First Law of the History of Technology."

No technology is absolutely, by-its-very nature "good." And none is bad. But neither is technology ever neutral. Depending on how we design the technology, and even more on how we use the technology, it will affect us, it will change us, in some way. Whether the effects and changes turn out to be good or bad, or both inseparably together, is not predestined in the inherent qualities of the technology itself (as the Wright brothers seemed to have thought about the airplane) but rather it depends on the broader context and values within which we live our lives. The human consequences of the airplane have gone far beyond what the Wrights or anyone else imagined in 1903. If it had been invented at a different time, or if it had been introduced into a different context or under different circumstances, the invention of the airplane might have led to quite different results. In this case, as in others, "The river of history could have cut a different canyon."

Kranzberg's first law reminds us to "compare short-term versus long-term results, the utopian hopes versus the spotted actuality, the what-might-have-been against what actually happened, and the trade-offs among various ‘goods' and possible ‘bads'". All of these comparisons can be made "by seeing how technology interacts in different ways with different values and institutions, indeed, with the entire sociocultural milieu."

But Kranzberg's first law is not the only "law" apropos to consideration of the history of flight technology. Another basic insight comes not from historians, but from those who work in the aerospace industry. There is a saying in the aerospace industry: ‘Requirements push and technology pulls." What this means, in a nutshell, is that the requirements of new missions, or even the need to do current jobs better, are often what is driving engineers and scientists to work on the leading edge of technology. They are being "pushed" by ever more demanding requirements to find solutions to problems through the invention of new ideas. Technology then "pulls" by attracting those whose job it is to find a way to meet the requirements to the newest concepts germinating in university, government, and commercial laboratories. For the "push and pull" to work together effectively, it then takes a forward-thinking planner smart enough to envision a way to use the new technology successfully in the design of a brand new aircraft.

This sequence of developments—requirements (or needs), technology, concepts—has been, and still is, basic to the technological progress of most modern aircraft—and perhaps all military aircraft. "Requirements push and technology pulls" may be just a more complicated way of the old saying: "Necessity is the mother of invention." There is a lot of common sense, and quite a bit of historical validity, to this ancient aphorism, but it is also true that it is not always the case—or always that illuminating of what is going on. Sometimes "Necessity is not the mother of invention," but just the opposite: "Invention is the mother of necessity." This is in fact Melvin Kranzberg's second law of the history of technology—and it makes us think about aerospace technology in some very important ways.

Once the Wrights invented the airplane, all sorts of things then really needed to happen. Over the course of the next 30 some years, the airplane was in a sense reinvented as the Wrights' achievement was completely rethought and reworked by emerging groups of professionals dedicated to the airplane's improvement and greater practicality. What Kranzberg's second law tells us is that "Every technical innovation seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective." In the case of the airplane, the invention quickly necessitated all sorts of auxiliary technologies: advanced structures and materials, new wing shapes, streamlined aerodynamics, retractable landing gear, efficient low-drag engine cowlings, variable-pitch propellers, and much more. But perhaps even more importantly, it also necessitated new social forms and organizations (like military air services, airlines, airports, government bureaus, research laboratories, engineering curricula, and much else) in order to make the airplane more fully practicable. "While it might be said that each of these other developments occurred in a response to a specific need," Kranzberg claimed "it was the original invention that mothered the necessity."

It is important to underscore one last, essential point. Just because the history of technology involves technology, it does not mean that technical factors always take precedence. In the real world, so-called "soft" and "mushy" things like politics and culture, like what bankers think can make them money or what activists say may harm the environment, often override good technical or engineering logic. And they should. Some might say that is why an American SST has never flown. That is why in the history of the American space program, all the thoughtful and well intentioned talk about "the next logical step" has almost never led to it. After launching a man into space via Project Mercury, NASA said that the next logical step was to establish a permanent manned presence in low earth orbit, but instead the country landed men on the Moon. After going to the Moon via Project Apollo, the next logical step was to build an earth-orbiting space station along with a space shuttle to service it, but instead the Nixon Administration decided that the country could not afford both and could manage temporarily with just the shuttle, even though the space station had always been the shuttle's main reason for existing. After the shuttle, surely the next logical step was to build a space station, but once again the country found reasons to postpone building one.

Clearly, logic does not determine the history of technology; and technologically "sweet" solutions do not always triumph over political and social forces. Historical logic, if we even want to use that phrase, is not the logic of engineers and scientists; it is the logic of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. In that all-too-real fantasy land, Tweedledee explains logic to Alice: "Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic." Tweedledee's logic is the only kind the American space program has ever known, or probably ever will.

So, if you stumble across a book on a topic in the history of aerospace technology, do not be put off because you might think its author's brain is full of just engineering tables and equations. That will not prove to be the case. There is a lot of "soft and mushy stuff" up there also. It is what makes our species human; it is part of what makes us brilliant, and a large part of what drives us nuts. It is what makes the history of technology one of the most complex and fascinating subjects one can possibly study.

There may be a bigger message here as well. In 1998 Microsoft's Bill Gates said about the Wright brothers' invention in a speech he gave at Time Magazine's 75th anniversary celebration of the airplane that "We have to understand that engineering breakthroughs are not just mechanical or scientific, they are liberating forces that can continually improve people's lives."

Let us hope that the flying machine, in the 21st century, does "free" us, in more positive ways, than it has been able to do in the century just passed. There is no guarantee that it will. But like our dear Wright brothers gazing into their future that is our present, let us proceed into this new millennium with optimism that our globe's political environment will improve so that our future generations can enjoy our technical advances and not be destroyed by them. It is something in which the Wrights would want us not only to apply our best problem-solving and inventive skills, but also in which to invest our limitless capacity to hope and to trust.