ASPECTS OF AMERICAN AIRPORT DESIGN BEFORE WORLD WAR II

INTRODUCTION

The “modem” American commercial airport was invented during the two decades before the start of the Second World War. This opening statement has to be written in the passive voice because while it is easy to speak of the invention of airports, there are no inventors – no “Wright Brothers” – responsible for this remarkable technological system which makes commercial air transportation possible. This paper explores a major aspect of the “invention” of airports which was the process of standardization of airport design. In particular, it emphasizes the interaction between and among three separate groups of professionals – engineers, architects and city planners.

The idea that airports were technologies which needed to be designed, let alone something which required the services of “experts” to undertake, did not always exist. Orville Wright argued in a special editorial for Aviation magazine in 1919 that: “The airplane has already been made abundantly safe for flight. The problem before the engineer today is that of providing for safe landing.”1 Few paid much attention to Wright’s pronouncement though. Commercial air transportation entrepreneurs and other aviation enthusiasts wanted to emphasize the image of an airplane whizzing freely through the sky unhindered by all earthly obstacles. Above all else, this preoccupation with unfettered speed worked to eclipse a nascent discussion about the infrastructure needed to transform civilian aviation from mainly a random and recreational activity to a regular and commercial operation.

As various enterprises got underway, most notably the U. S. Post Office’s Air Mail Service, attitudes changed. Whether pilot or passenger (or even just the shipper of a letter or parcel), only the knowledge that it was possible to depart safely and then later return to earth made flight desirable. Consequently, interest in the details – the technical problems associated with safe landing – became paramount. Subsequent sections of this paper describe how first engineers, then architects, and finally city planners came to form a partnership of experts whose coordinated services were required for the design of airports. The creation of this specialized technical community helped fix the fundamental design, shape and purpose of the commercial airport, as well as the technologies and techniques to build and operate them.

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P. Galison and A. Roland, Atmospheric Flight in the Twentieth Century, 301-322 © 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers.


The few historical accounts of airport development assume (either explicitly or implicitly) a deterministic relationship between airplane and airport. In other words, the size, shape, weight and speed of the airplane determined the physical characteristics of the place for taking-off and landing. Standardization of airport design then, it is argued, is a consequence of the emergence in the 1930s of the “modem” airliner, most especially the Douglas DC-3.2

Closer examination reveals a different story. Powerful political, economic, and cultural forces profoundly influenced airport design; even more than the performance characteristics of airplanes (which for commercial transports only rarely were designed to exceed the capacity of the existing infrastructure). Especially important to understanding this history is the story of the formation of the unusual interdisciplinary technical community responsible for airport design. It would be an alliance among professionals more typically noted for their extreme professional rivalry. Yet, there was more cooperation than conflict and that fact is critical to understanding how airport design was standardized.

This is not to say that there was no professional rivalry but the “struggle” among engineers, architects and city planners was limited.3 The relative harmony came through the steady expansion of the definition of what constituted the technological functions of an airport. Increasing consumer demand for air transportation profoundly shaped the technology of airports. So too did the participation of the federal government. The partitioning of a technological design problem does not necessarily result in positive relations among the participants but in this instance these factors served to mitigate conflicts. At the start of World War Two, this cooperative working arrangement among engineers, architects, and city planners mediated by government officials was manifest in an airport system design that had become a “normal technology.”4

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