Today, we meet a nice young man and his killing
machines. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The first airplanes that took
to the sky in WW-I had only one purpose -- scouting
enemy positions and movements. Still, in no time at
all, their pilots looked for ways to shoot each
other down. Flyers made the first kills by firing
pistols and rifles off to the side. Then backseat
observers began operating movable machine guns. But
what they clearly needed were forward-firing guns
that could bring an enemy down from behind.
The British were first to mount forward-firing guns
on the upper wing -- shooting over the propeller.
But that made aiming hard, and it put the guns out
of the pilot's easy reach when they jammed. The
French took the next step. They put metal
deflectors on the propeller so the pilot could fire
straight through the blades, with a bullet glancing
off now and then. That worked until crankshafts
deformed under the hammering of their own pilots'
Enter now Holland's Anthony Fokker. The year before
WW-I began, Fokker was only 23 and building
airplanes. Germany contracted with him to build ten
airplanes, and he went to work. War broke out
months later, and Fokker was suddenly Germany's
man-of-the-hour. By 1915 his monoplane, the
Eindecker, was doing frontline scout work.
Then the Germans brought him a captured French
plane with metal plates on the propeller. Could he
do that with the Eindecker? Fokker
tells what happened next, in his autobiography:
They handed him the plane late on a Tuesday
afternoon. Fokker said, "Wait a minute!" The way
around the problem is to let the propeller fire the
gun. The propeller turns at 1200 rpm, and the gun
fires 600 times a minute. Put a cam on the shaft
and let it fire the gun every other turn. Then no
bullet will ever hit the prop. Fokker came back
with a synchronized machine gun that Friday.
The device worked well enough in tests, but German
officers wanted a combat demonstration. They
wrapped the Dutch civilian Fokker in a German
uniform and hustled him off to the front.
He took off in his Eindecker and soon
spotted a two-seater French scout below him. He put
the plane into an attack dive, located the scout in
his sights, then realized he was about to kill two
people! Fokker turned sick to his stomach and flew
back to the aerodrome without firing a shot.
Let the Germans do their own killing, he vowed. So
the Army relented. They sent a pilot named Ostwald
Boelke up to try it out. Boelke went on to become
Germany's first ace. Fokker went back to making the
advanced German airplanes that killed thousands of
Allied pilots throughout the war. The Allies called
his mechanism The Fokker Scourge. After the
war, we used Fokker's commercial airplanes
here in America. My father, a newspaper writer, had
been a pilot in France during WW-I. He met Fokker
here. Later he told me what a thoroughly pleasant
fellow he'd found Fokker to be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds