Today, let's try to design an airplane. 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.
As the clouds of WW-II
gathered in 1941, our Air Force badly needed better
planes, and lots of them. So the Air Force went to
the automobile manufacturers for help. In 1941,
General Motors started making B-29 parts, and Ford
set up a plant to make B-24's at Willow Run. Then
General Motors hired Don Berlin, the man who'd
designed the P-40 -- that was the fighter plane the
Flying Tigers had been using in China.
Up to then airplanes had been almost hand-made.
Historian I.B. Holley tells us that the biggest
airplane company could turn out three planes a day,
while automobile makers made three cars a minute.
Henry Ford, for one,
didn't appreciate how hard it was to adapt a good
airplane design to his mass-production methods. He
rashly claimed that, freed of government red tape,
he'd be able to make more than a thousand planes a
So Don Berlin went to the Air Force with a plan
that would link his skills as an airplane designer
with General Motors's style of mass production. He
showed them a new fighter-plane design. The plane,
the XP-75, was supposed to outperform our
experimental fighters. But he was going to avoid
the problems these planes were giving us. His plan
was simple. He'd use the best parts of other
airplanes -- the wing of the P-40, the tail of the
A-24, the landing gear of the P-47, and so on.
Like Pygmalion or the Frankenstein monster, the
XP-75 was to be an assembly of perfect parts.
Unfortunately, the result resembled Frankenstein's
creation in more ways than one. It was an oversized
monster that couldn't compete with planes designed
from the ground up.
Yet, in its haste, the Air Force had gone ahead and
tooled up to mass-produce this beast -- they were
so sure it would succeed. When the whole thing was
finally scrapped in 1944, it had cost over nine
million dollars. That was still a huge chunk of the
government budget back in 1944.
A designer must, after all, seek out the harmony of
the many parts that make up a design. He must see
the design whole. Sophia Loren once pointed out
that all her parts were wrong. Her nose was the
wrong shape, her mouth was too wide, and so on. Yet
who could fault her beauty? In a good design, the
components have to make sense in the context of the
whole. Just as a Miss America contest, with its
focus on components, never identifies really great
beauty, the XP-75 was no more than a collection of
fine parts. It wasn't a whole airplane.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds