Today we meet a special figure in early air 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
The first military airplanes to
take to the air in WW-I had just one purpose --
scouting enemy positions and movements. Still, it was
no time at all before the pilots of these planes
looked for ways to shoot each other out of the sky.
The first kills were made with pistols and rifles
fired off to the side. Then movable machine guns were
operated by backseat observers. But it was soon
apparent that forward-firing machine guns would be a
lot more effective.
The British mounted the first forward-firing guns on
the upper wing, where they could fire over the
propeller blade. But they were hard to aim and almost
impossible to fix when they jammed in flight. The
French then put metal deflectors on the propeller so
the pilot could fire straight through the blades,
with a few bullets glancing off them. That worked,
but it eventually damaged the crankshaft.
As the story is told, one of these French planes was
captured by the Germans, who handed it over to the
handsome young airplane designer, Anthony Fokker, on
a Tuesday evening. That Friday, Fokker came back with
the first interrupter device -- a mechanism,
connected to the engine, that turned the gun off each
time a propeller blade passed through the line of
Fokker's device worked well enough in a ground test,
but the German officers wanted a combat
demonstration. They wrapped Fokker -- a Dutch
civilian -- in a German uniform and bundled him off
to the front.
Fokker took off in a monoplane of his own design and
soon enough spotted a two-seater Allied scout below
him. He put his plane in an attack dive and located
the scout in his sights. Then the reality of the
situation registered on Fokker -- he was about to
kill two people. He turned sick to his stomach and
flew back to the aerodrome without firing a shot.
Fokker vowed not to fly in combat again and returned
to his factory. From then on he provided Germany with
the advanced airplanes that killed most of the
thousands of Allied pilots who died during the rest
of the war. They called his interrupter mechanism the
"Fokker Scourge." Just after the war, his civilian
airplane designs were widely used in the United
States. My father -- who'd been an Allied pilot --
met him here and remarked what a nice fellow he was.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds