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Air PowerThe Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq
By Stephen Budiansky
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2005 Stephen Budiansky
All right reserved.
It was an age of miracles.
The year 1900 began with an excited rush of newspaper articles, sermons, and speeches marveling over the transformations that had taken place in the century just past. "The nineteenth century," editorialized the New York Times, "has been marked by greater progress in all that pertains to the material well-being and enlightenment of mankind than all the previous history of the race." In "every department of science and intellectual activity," agreed the Washington Post, "we have gone beyond the wildest dreams of 1800."
People were not merely living in a miraculous age; they were keenly aware of living in a miraculous age, one in which there seemed no limit to what human ingenuity might do. Inventions were not merely providing new material comforts and easing burdens; they were breaking down the very certainties of centuries.
Change had come at a mind-spinning pace. The historian Mark Sullivan, born in 1874, wrote that as a boy he had carried a lantern "of a model as old, at least, as Shakespeare, a cylinder of tin with little jagged holes punched through it." Candles and candle molds were common household articles. Half of Americans still were farmers, and they still used tools that a farmer from a thousand years before would have had no trouble recognizing. Grain was mowed with handheld scythes and threshed on a barn floor using a flail made of two sticks joined together with a leather thong. As late as the 1880s, Sullivan recalled, a farmer who wanted a barn went out to the woods with an axe, chopped down oaks, trimmed them, and got his neighbors together for a barn raising. The blacksmith's shop and the gristmill were still fixtures of every rural hamlet, plying trades unaltered in their essentials since the Middle Ages.
The typical American or European of the mid-nineteenth century lived in a world that was not just medieval in its material and tangible dimensions; it was medieval in its cadences and habits of mind. The rhythms of life were set by the sun's rise and fall and the procession of the seasons. Men, and news, and knowledge, traveled at the speed a man or a horse could walk in a day-perhaps twenty-five miles, on a good day, on a good road, in good weather. Henry Adams, the historian and educator who struggled in his autobiography to fathom the world turned upside down that he now lived in, did not exaggerate when he observed that the "American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1, than the year 1900" in the education he was given.
In 1900 Henry Adams would stand in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition in Paris and feel "his historical neck broken" as he contemplated the almost silently whirring dynamos that lit the fair's buildings and grounds. "He began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross," Adams wryly observed, his distant third-person voice perfectly echoing the disconnectedness from all things certain and familiar that the new century had ushered in. "The planet itself," he wrote, "seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed." Even history, the laying out of an orderly sequence of events linked by cause and effect, history as Adams had practiced it as a professor at Harvard, had been stood on its head by this "sudden irruption of forces totally new." The year 1900, he conceded, "was not the first to upset schoolmasters. Copernicus and Galileo had broken many professorial necks about 1600; Columbus had stood the world on its head towards 1500; but the nearest approach to the revolution of 1900 was that of 310, when Constantine set up the Cross."
Modern social historians look back on the Victorians and belittle their naove awe of science, technology, and progress, but Adams was no naof, and what he expressed was what millions felt, and felt with perfect justice. Theirs was a world where the familiar bearings were simply gone, where religious belief, social conventions, even consciousness itself were being refashioned by the onrush of science; where even popes and kings might tremble before the impersonal forces of steam, steel, and electricity; where "everything was flexible, everything was possible," in the words of the historian Howard Mumford Jones. Inventions had annihilated distance and time. By 1900 there were a million and a half telephones in the United States; it was possible for a man in New York City to sit at a desk and carry on a conversation with a man in Omaha, 1,250 miles away, a feat that only a few decades earlier would have meant a journey of weeks. The network of railroad track had quadrupled since the Civil War, to 193,000 miles; a train now arrived and departed Chicago every four minutes. The railroads had freed travel from the weather, linked small towns with great cities, standardized time across the vast reaches of the continent. Every city and town used to keep its own local hours, resetting the clocks to 12:00 as the sun reached its zenith at noon each day; now even the smallest town was part of a rhythm and consciousness that pulsed to the tempo of the railroad and the metropolis. Electric lines and gas pipes tied individual houses to huge networks, pulling them out of their self-sufficient isolation into an unseen world beyond.
Distance and time were being annihilated by the way news now traveled, too. The decades after the Civil War had brought the Linotype machine and a new process for making white paper from cheap chemically digested wood pulp instead of expensive linen fibers, and daily newspapers sprang up everywhere. By 1900 there were 2,226 metropolitan dailies in the United States, many producing multiple editions each day as their high-speed rotary presses churned out the latest news, telegraphed from across the nation and around the world. The problems of even the most distant reaches of the world were now on people's minds and lips. In 1900 American farmers sent five thousand tons of wheat to help relieve a famine in India.
Invention was sweeping aside conventions and social distinctions as old as civilization itself. Where Marx failed, chemists and electrical engineers triumphed. The San Francisco Examiner observed that "in the span of a single life, the humblest artisan enjoys what kings could not purchase with their treasures a century ago." Costs of once unimaginable luxuries and conveniences plummeted. In 1900 Kodak introduced the Brownie camera; the camera cost one dollar and a roll of film that took six pictures cost ten cents, and suddenly everyone was a photographer; the stiff formal portraits of professional photographers were replaced in family albums with backyard scenes and youngsters mugging for the camera. Electric streetcars became so efficient they dropped their fares from a dime to a nickel. By 1901 there were 76,945 post offices in the United States, an all-time peak, and the recently introduced Rural Free Delivery system let loose a flood of mail-order retailing that freed customers from the tyranny of local merchants. The cornucopian fruits of the entire industrial and commercial energy of the nation were now directly available to farmers and housewives; everything from a suit to a book to a collie dog to a kitchen stove could be bought without leaving one's home.
Even death itself was unclenching the hold with which it had so untiringly and capriciously embraced humanity. As late as the 1870s people generally saw a doctor as a last resort, and with good reason, for the cure was often literally worse than the disease, and it usually wasn't much of a cure, either. By 1900 advances in microbiology and pathology were turning medicine, and public health in particular, into a science, and the results were nothing short of the miraculous. Pasteurization of milk, chlorination of water, and the drainage of swamps were eliminating diseases that had crippled and killed generations: brucellosis, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, cholera.
And none of this happened without its being measured, and noted, and marveled over. It was the Age of Confidence, the Age of Optimism, the Age of Energy, the Age of Progress, but most of all it was the Age of Self-Consciousness, for people were filled with a palpable sense of living in a time of great consequence.
The transformations wrought by invention were nowhere more self-consciously on display than in the international expositions that Henry Adams and millions of others flocked to. Between 1876 and 1910 the United States staged a dozen of these pageants to progress; in all they drew a staggering one hundred million visitors. For the World's Columbian Exposition that opened in Chicago in 1893, the building of the fairground itself became an epitome of the limitless mutability of this amazing new world. On a boggy stretch of Chicago lakefront a million cubic yards of topsoil was shifted in three months, a million willows and ferns and other trees and shrubs trucked in and planted. Freight trains on newly laid track hauled in twenty thousand tons of iron and steel and seventy million board feet of lumber, and a shimmering white fantasy city of castles, temples, domes, Corinthian columns, and colossal sculptures arose on what had been a swamp just a few months before. The artist W. Hamilton Gibson hailed Chicago's "White City" as a "New Jerusalem," and he actually meant it.
The largest crowds were always to be found at the Electricity Building, a palace of forty thousand panes of glass whose centerpiece was a shaft seventy-eight feet high, covered with thousands of electric lights. The fair's organizers turned down a proposed plan to buy the Colosseum in Rome, dismantle it, ship it across the Atlantic, and reconstruct it "stone by stone" in Chicago, but the scheme would not actually have been out of keeping with the spirit the exposition sought to capture. Anything was possible.
The turn of the century brought not only an outpouring of reflections on how far mankind had come but also an irrepressible urge to project where it would go next. Newspapers sought out eminent persons to visualize the world a hundred years hence; the results, as Mark Sullivan recalled, "were usually grandiose." Some prognosticators, to be sure, seemed more concerned about the domestic and familial comforts that new inventions would bring; Ladies' Home Journal foresaw business travelers being able to phone their wives from aboard ship while crossing the Atlantic, while others were content to predict home ice-making machines ("everybody his own iceman").
Most, however, dwelt not upon the mundane material facts of new inventions that were likely to come, but on how these new machines would continue to transform life and society. In the view of most of these experts, there was almost nothing in the future that would not be touched by the tidal force of technological progress that the last century had unleashed. The Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis, a well-known clergyman and writer, looked into this crystal ball of progress and saw an all-encompassing vision of the world to come: "Laws are becoming more just, rulers humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart becoming at once more just and more gentle."
If inventions could have great consequences, they could also have terrible consequences. In 1901, two years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, H. G. Wells contributed a remarkable series of five articles to the North American Review. "Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophesy" was the title.
Among Wells's predictions was the perfection of the airplane, not in itself a terribly surprising prognostication from someone in 1901 setting out to be a prophet. But what Wells had to say next was rather more striking. "Directly that is accomplished," he wrote, "the new invention will be most assuredly applied to war."
Wars of the future, Wells continued, would be marked by a decisive struggle for the command of the air, and the bombs that would then rain down from aircraft would leave no spot on earth safe:
The victor in that aerial struggle will tower with pitilessly watchful eyes over his adversary, will concentrate his guns and all his strength unobserved, will mark all his adversary's roads and communications and sweep them with sudden, incredible disasters of shot and shell. The moral effect of this predominance will be enormous. All over the losing country, not simply at his frontier, but everywhere, the victor will soar. Everybody, everywhere will be perpetually and constantly looking up, with a sense of loss and insecurity, with a vague distress of painful anticipations.
Wells's apocalyptic prophecies would become much more widely known a few years later when he published a popular novel that elaborated this vision in vivid detail. The War in the Air opens on a world of the not too distant future. The English Channel has been spanned by a 150-foot-high bridge, monorails and gyroscopically stabilized two-wheeled cars whisk people about their daily business, shops are filled with produce from all over the world, and rumors are buzzing that the armies of the world's great nations are conducting secret experiments with flying machines.
When war breaks out between Germany and America, a fleet of German airships suddenly appears over New York City, and this world of wonders becomes a world of death. "She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and gross limitations of aerial warfare," explains Wells's narrator. "She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction." As the line of German airships cruises the length of Broadway methodically dropping explosives, buildings and bridges collapse, and soon all of Manhattan is engulfed in a sea of crimson flames, "one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world's history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below."
The last chapter of the story takes places thirty years after the war. A young boy and his uncle are walking through the deserted ruins of London, where a few refugees and their derelict cows and pigs now wander the abandoned high streets.
"But why did they start the War?" the boy asks.
"They couldn't stop their selves," his uncle replies. "'Aving them airships made 'em."
Wells was no pacifist.
Excerpted from Air Power by Stephen Budiansky Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Budiansky. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsAuthor's note
Part 1: Kitty Hawk to Saint-Mihiel, 1900-1918
1. Visions 3
2. Bogeymen 32
3. Realities 55
4. Grand plans 90
Part 2: Versailles to Madrid, 1919-1939
5. Lessons learned and mislearned 125
6. The quest for precision 153
7. The fight for the fighter 184
Part 3: Warsaw to Nagasaki, 1939-1945
8 Finest hour 219
9 Air versus sea 255
10 The temporary triumph of tactical aviation 281
11 The allied bomber offensive 308
Part 4: Omaha to Baghdad, 1946-2003
12 Strategic air command 345
13 Hard knocks 376
14 Precision, at last 406
What People are Saying About This
"A truly fascinating and insightful perspective on the history of air power." —Norman R. Augustine, former chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation
"A splendid job." —The Wall Street Journal