The enigma of the aerofoil
In April 1997 Peter Galison and Alex Roland organized the conference “Atmospheric Flight in the Twentieth Century,” which was held at the Dibner Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By a stroke of good fortune, and the generosity of the Dibner Institute, I was able to attend the meeting. My role was to act as an outside commentator. I was deeply impressed by the high quality of all of the papers that were presented, though I confess I was somewhat daunted by the technical expertise of the contributors. The conference opened my eyes to a field of work, the history of aeronautics, that was new to me but which proved immediately attractive.1
One paper in the conference that caught my attention dealt with early British research in aerodynamics and the way in which, in Britain, the gulf between science and technology was bridged. The paper was titled “The Wind Tunnel and the Emergence of Aeronautical Research in Britain.”2 After the conference its author, Dr. Takehiko Hashimoto, kindly sent me the unpublished Ph. D. thesis on which his paper had been based.3 Dr. Hashimoto’s main concern was with the role of those important individuals who act as mediators, middlemen, and “translators” between mathematicians and engineers. By comparing the development of British and American aerodynamics (and their respective responses to German aerodynamics after World War I), he reached the gratifying conclusion that the British had been somewhat more successful in this process of mediation than had the Americans. I say “gratifying” because I am British, and the British frequently take a pessimistic attitude toward their own technological capabilities and tend to assume that other countries always do things better. I did not pursue the theme of the mediator or middleman, but it was this work that prompted me to do the research presented here. Although we paint a somewhat different picture of certain people who feature in both of our studies, I express my indebtedness to Dr. Hashimoto and my appreciation of his work.
I began by following up some of Dr. Hashimoto’s references in the Public Record Office in London and soon found a set of research questions of my own that I wanted to answer, as well as evidence that there was material available with which to pursue them. My questions were these: In the early days of aviation, that is, in the early 1900s, there were rival accounts of how an aircraft wing provides “lift.” One account was supported by British experts, while the other was mainly developed by German experts. This was well known to historians working in the field.4 These two theories of lift were also featured, though not in technical detail, in Dr. Hashimoto’s account.5 But I wanted to know (1) why the rivalry arose, (2) what sustained it for almost twenty years, and (3) how it was resolved. These questions were not addressed in Dr. Hashimoto’s work, nor had they been convincingly answered in any of the broader historical literature in the field. The present book sets out the conclusions that I eventually reached on these three questions.
My kind colleagues in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh bore the disruptions caused by my research-related comings and goings with understanding and good humor. I am all too aware that my activities must have added to their own already considerable work load. Relief from teaching and administrative duties during crucial parts of the research was made possible by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I thank the Council for its financial support in the form of a project grant ESRC Res 000-23-0088. Grants specifically designed to offset the costs of publication came from two further sources: Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Royal Society of London. I thank the Master and Fellows of Trinity for their generosity, and I also express my appreciation for the continued support of the Royal Society, in these financially straitened times, for work in the history of science.
The argument of my book involves a detailed comparison between British and German aerodynamic work, and this subject would have proven impossible to study without a number of lengthy visits to the Max-Planck-Institut fur Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. I must record my deep gratitude to Lorraine Daston and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, the directors of Abteilung II and Abteilung III, respectively, and to Ursula Klein and Otto Sibum, who were directors of two of the independent research groups in the Institute. Their warm welcome and great generosity will never be forgotten, nor will the stimulus provided by the research environment they all worked so hard, and so successfully, to create. I also express particular thanks to Urs Schoe- pflin, the Institute librarian, and his dedicated team. They met my endless stream of requests and queries with unfailing professionalism, kindness, and scholarly understanding. Special mention must be made of one member of the library team, Monika Sommerer, who, in the final phases of writing the book, kindly began the work of approaching copyright holders for permission to reproduce the photographs and diagrams that illustrate my narrative.
One of the first things I did in Berlin was to make working translations of the main German technical papers that were relevant to the analysis. (By a “working translation” I mean something adequate for my own use rather than for public consumption.) Here I thank Marc Staudacher, a resourceful teacher of German and a professional translator, who spent many hours with me going over my attempts in order to check them and to explain points of grammar and meaning that were eluding me.
In developing the British side of the story I am indebted to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London for access to their unique collection of early aeronautical literature. I am deeply grateful to Brian Riddle, the librarian, who put this material, as well as his profound knowledge of the field, at my disposal. It was also through the good offices of Brian Riddle that I was able to make contact with Dr. Audrey Glauert of Clare Hall, Cambridge. Dr. Glauert generously made available to me material relating to her father and mother, both of whom played an important role in the development of aerodynamics and therefore feature prominently in my book. I hope I have been able to put that material to good use. The opportunity to talk with someone directly connected with the historical actors and episodes I was describing was a moving experience, and I express my gratitude to Dr. Glauert for her hospitality and kindness.
From its inception I have discussed my research project with Walter Vin – centi of the University of Stanford. I have benefited immeasurably from numerous and lengthy conversations drawing on his firsthand experience of aerodynamic research. His patience in discussing the arguments of the early technical papers and his willingness to read and comment so carefully on the first drafts of many of the chapters of this book have been invaluable to me in learning to find my way in this new field. It has been a privilege to be able to put my questions and problems to him and to be the recipient of his expert and thoughtful answers. Donald MacKenzie read and commented on a number of early draft chapters; later, drafts of the complete book were read by Barry Barnes, Celia Bloor, Michael Eckert, Jon Harwood, and Horst Nowacki. Not only their encouragement but also their critical comments have been invaluable, and I have made extensive alterations as a result of their suggestions. The responsibility for the defects that remain can only be laid at my doorstep.
In addition I have accumulated many other debts of gratitude for the help I have received in the course of the research—guidance to the literature and new sources, help in approaching and gaining access to archives, and numerous conversations on historiographical, methodological, and philosophical questions. I hope the following persons will forgive me if I do not mention individually their many and varied acts of kindness and generosity that, nevertheless, I so clearly remember. My sincere thanks to Andrew Barker, Jed Buchwald, Dianna Buchwald, Harry Collins, Ivan Crozier, Olivier Darrigol, David Edgerton, Heinz Fuetterer, Zae-Young Ghim, Judith Goodstein, Ivor Grattan-Guinness, John Henry, Dieter Hoffmann, Christoph Hoffmann, Marion Kazemi, Kevin Knox, Martin Kusch, Wolfgang Lefevre, David Mus- ker, Jurgen Renn, Simon Schaffer, Suman Seth, Steven Shapin, Skuli Sigur – dsen, Richard Staley, Nelson Studart, Steve Sturdy, Thomas Sturm, Annette Vogt, Andrew Warwick, and Richard Webb.
I have used material from the following archives and express my thanks to the archivists for permission to consult their holdings: Archives of the California Institute of Technology (Karman); Archiv zur Geschichte der Max – Planck-Gesellschaft (Prandtl); Churchill Archive Centre, Cambridge (Far – ren); Einstein Papers at Caltech (Einstein and Frank); Gottingen Archive of the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Luft-und Raumfahrt (Prandtl); Library of the University of Cambridge (Tripos exam papers); National Library of Scotland (Haldane); Public Record Office (minutes of the ARC); Royal Aeronautical Society (Lanchester and Grey); Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon (Melvill Jones); St. John’s College, Cambridge (Jeffreys and Love); Trinity College, Cambridge (Taylor and Thomson); University of Coventry (Lanchester); and University of Edinburgh (A. R. Low).
The provenance of all photographic images and diagrams from published and unpublished sources is indicated in the caption along with an acknowledgment of copyright and permission to reproduce the material. In a few cases it proved impossible, despite every effort, to make contact with the holders of the copyright.
Finally I must mention my greatest debt. Throughout the research and the writing of this book I have benefited from the unstinting help of my wife. The book is dedicated to her. It is as good as I can make it, but it still seems little to give in return. I proffer it with the sentiment Wenig, aber mit Liebe.