Today, we anticipate aerial warfare. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'll read you the last
paragraph of an article that came out in 1909.
Airplanes were then only six years old, and
dirigibles were in their infancy. The writers say:
... [dirigibles will change] the history of
nations ... if aerial warfare is permitted to
exist. But will it be permitted? [Artillery wars] a
mile above the earth ... where the defeated plunge
[in masses] of charred pulp, will become ... too
spectacularly horrible ... Will civilization permit
it to exist? Or does this new machine mean the end
Well, we found out what would and
wouldn't be permitted, all right. Aerial warfare was
indeed permitted. It hardly involved dirigibles. And
it did not put an end to war.
The writers tell of secret German tests of a new
Zeppelin outfitted with a machine gun that fires
exploding shells. It's those new machine guns that
most worry the writers. They recall how General
Kitchener held off waves of the Mahdi's attacking
troops at Omdurman eleven years before. Kitchener
used the new Maxim gun to slaughter row after row
of attacking soldiers.
The writers make light of bombs, or aerial
torpedoes, as they call them. Bombs, they feel,
would be impossible to aim. They see dirigibles
flying at a height out of range of enemy fire and
spraying enemy troops with exploding machine gun
bullets from above. Navies, they observe, will
instantly become obsolete. And in all this they
don't even mention the new airplanes.
Five years later the long-awaited World War broke
out. Dirigibles entered the fray at first and did a
little damage in London; but Allied airplanes soon
put them out of business.
The authors were correct on one point. It was the
machine gun that made WW-I so terrible. When
machine guns sprouted on airplanes, they made
aerial warfare every bit as bad as the article
predicted. But the most telling point was the
reference to Kitchener at Omdurman. Generals should
have seen what those new guns would do down on the
ground. Within days, they froze the classical
military maneuvers of WW-I into a static line of
parallel trenches. There they chewed up 5000 men a
week, not including a few pitched battles that ate
a half million at once.
The prophecy about navies is still unfolding.
Navies survived WW-I. But in WW-II they were
increasingly wed to the aircraft carrier. Not until
the Falklands war did the vulnerability of ships to
aerial missiles seem to become complete.
So if you want to make any historian nervous, just
ask him to extrapolate the past into the future. He
knows that, like these authors, he'll get some
things right and other things wrong. History, after
all, is shaped by technology; and technology is as
unpredictable as the human spirit that drives it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dienstbach, C. and MacMechen, T.R., The Aerial
Battleship. McLure's Magazine, August,
1909 (reprinted in Early Flight (F. Oppel, ed.).
Seacaucus, NJ: Castle, 1987.)
The unedited text of the closing paragraph goes
That the new machine of war will cause great
changes in the history of nations cannot be doubted
-- if aerial warfare is permitted to exist. But
will it be permitted? War a mile above the earth,
between corps of artillery firing into huge bodies
of inflammable gas, where the defeated plunge down
to the ground a mass of charred pulp, will become a
thing too spectacularly horrible for conception.
Will civilization permit it to exist? Or does this
new machine mean the end of war?
Image courtesy of Sims
Stereopticon image of a WW-I British dirigible
Image courtesy of Sims
Stereopticon image of a WW-1 dirigible passing over
a German town
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the 1910 Century
A 1910 anticipation of aerial warfare
Click on the image for an enlargement.
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