Today, the texture of change. 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.
I've been asked why I say so much about airplanes.
It's because early flight reveals the texture of technological change in a most
remarkable microcosm. In 1935, the great architect le Corbusier said of airplanes,
"No door is closed. Everything is relative. ... If a new factor makes its
appearance, the relation alters. ... In aviation everything is scrapped in a year."
That situation is far less fluid -- far less interesting -- today. The Air Force
still flies B-52 bombers after sixty years of service. You and I ride in airplanes
not much different from those we flew in the '60s. The rate of change was dizzying
when le Corbusier wrote. Then it began slowing down.
That fact came home to me last week in the
National Museum of the Pacific War.
I found a badly-damaged Grumman Wildcat fighter in an alcove, as it might've
been abandoned on Guadalcanal.
The Wildcat was a stubby mid-wing monoplane, barely distinguishable from another plane,
the Brewster Buffalo. The Buffalo was nicknamed Beer Barrel
because of its squat shape. Still, I had to go back to my old WW-II airplane spotter
books to tell the two apart. But look under the skin and we find change taking on a
The US Navy had four aircraft carriers in 1935 and needed better planes to fly off their
decks. So Brewster provided the new state-of-the-art F2A Buffalo: retractable
landing gear, speeds over 300 miles-an-hour, stressed aluminum skin ...
Then, trouble: its landing gear tended to fail on carrier decks. Maintenance was too finicky.
When the Japanese attacked Midway Island in 1941, our defending Buffalos couldn't stand up to their
Zero. The Buffalos we'd sold to
the British and Dutch suffered similar fates in Southeast Asia. The Navy had to retrench --
Grumman Aircraft looked over her shoulder at the Buffalo, improved upon it, and offered
their Wildcat -- slightly faster, better landing gear, higher ceiling, and it was
well-armored. It could stand a lot more punishment from the still-superior Zero.
And so it went. The Wildcat may've been better than the Buffalo, but it was
obsolete from the start. Meanwhile, we'd sold 44 Buffalos to the Finns before the war.
When the Soviet Union invaded Finland with their primitive biplanes, those Buffalos
(now marked with Swastikas) were the superior fighters.
And I'm back in that pull-no-punches Pacific War Museum. Here's that Wildcat, next step
along the way to a competitive fighter, displayed as badly-shot-up by a better Japanese plane.
It is a reminder of how desperately we had to change and shift in the face of an enemy who would
not be beaten by our 1941 equipment.
Le Corbusier was right. Everything we did had to be scrapped within a year. But now, with no time
to invent new technology, we could only adjust, adjust, adjust. And we'd never again see radical
change the way we had in the first thirty years of flight.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See the website for the National Museum of the Pacific War
in Fredericksburg, TX, and the Wikipedia articles on
the Brewster Buffalo and
the F4F Wildcat.
Also this blog
provides useful commentary on the relative merits of the Buffalo and the Wildcat.
J. Maas, F2A Buffalo in Action. (color by Don Greer, Illustrations by Perry Manley)
(Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 1996), No. 81.
For more on the texture of technological change see J. H. Lienhard,
How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines.
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.