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
streamline bodies to reduce wind resistance. It
certainly served this 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
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. In
reality, streamlining was a sales gimmick --
something to distract us from the tawdry realities
of the depression. It told us to buy things. It
told us we could all go fast. It was hardly one of
the great humanist schools of design.
The Nazis and Bolsheviks used streamlining as a
propaganda tool. American industry used it to make
us into consumers. It fairly smelled of
technocracy. It lasted 'til the 1950s, when, at
last, we were all offended by its dying excesses --
the enormous tailfins and chromium structures that
made the automobile ridiculous by any esthetic
But I loved airplanes as a child, and 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 truly
"When I was a child," said St. Paul, "I thought as a child."
Streamlining was a childish symbol of our
modern world -- now put away with other childish
things. But I still sneak an occasional look back
at that vision of motion, speed, and buoyancy.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
More on the streamlining movement can be found in an
exhibit review: Hyde, C.K., 'Streamlining America,'
An Exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. Dearborn, Michigan,
Technology and Culture, Vol. 29,
No. 1, 1988, pp. 125-129, or in the exhibit itself.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1480.