Today, we talk about streamlining. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The watchword of the 1930s
was modern. If I knew one thing as a child,
it was that I lived in the modern world. It was a
world where the vertical lines of art deco were
giving way to horizontal streamlined forms.
Everything in the 30s, 40s, and 50s was
streamlined. The Douglas DC-3 had brought
streamlining to passenger airplanes. The Chrysler "Airflow" and the
Lincoln "Zephyr" brought it to the automobile. Even
my first bike was streamlined.
Earlier in the 20th century, the great German
experts in fluid flow had shown us how to shape
bodies so as to reduce wind resistance.
Streamlining certainly served that function when
things moved fast. But my bicycle hardly qualified.
Nor did the streamlined Microchef kitchen stove
that came out in 1930. Bathrooms were streamlined.
Tractors were streamlined. Streamlining was a
metaphor for the brave new world we all lived in.
A confusion of design schools competed with each
other in the early '30s. The German Bauhaus school
had been scattered by the Nazis. Art deco was
dying. Neither the classic-colonials nor Le
Corbusier and the International School could gain
ascendancy. Then streamlining came out of this
gaggle, propelled by American industry and making
its simple appeal to the child in all of us. It
certainly appealed to the child I was then.
Streamlining called up the new high-tech of the
1930s, and it distracted us from the grim realities
of the depression. It told us to start buying
things again. It told us we could all go fast.
It was hardly one of the great humanist schools of
design, but it served a purpose. Of course the
Nazis and Bolsheviks used streamlining as a
propaganda tool. It fairly smelled of technocracy.
And, by the 1950s, streamlining finally gave us the
enormous tail-fins and chromium structures that
made the automobile seem ridiculous by any esthetic
The large American cars of the '50s were, in fact,
true wonders of engineering. They were rugged,
long-lived, high-performance machines -- the world
standard of their time. But they carried on their
backs the dying excesses of that strange design
epoch. When you and I look at those cars, we're apt
to see only a caricature of real streamlining and
overlook the fine engineering.
"When I was a child," said St. Paul, "I thought as
a child." Well, I loved airplanes as a child. The
functional curved aeroform shape touched something
in me. The way the gentle camber of an airfoil gave
the invisible wind a handle by which to pluck a
50-ton airplane into the sky -- that was magical.
Streamlining was a childlike symbol of the old
modern world. I suppose we've put it away with the
other things of childhood. But I still sneak a look
back at tail-fins and teardrops -- at that
now-vanished vision of motion, speed, and buoyancy.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds