The Railroad and the Space Program Revisited: Historical Analogues and the Stimulation of Commercial Space Operations


What if there had never been railroads?

Is there a relationship between railroads and the space program?

I am planning to give the paper, “The Railroad and the Space Program Revisited: Historical Analogues and the Stimulation of Commercial Space Operations,” at an upcoming conference entitled “Spinoffs of Mobility: Technology, Risk & Innovation.” This is the theme for the annual meeting of the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T²M) organization taking place at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 18-21, 2014.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

The abstract for my paper reads:

In 1965 historian Bruce Mazlish edited the NASA-sponsored study, The Railroad and the Space Program. An Exploration in Historical Analogy (MIT Press), seeking to understand the historical record of government stimulation of private sector investment in infrastructure for the public good. The study team explored several specific episodes of American railroad history. It took as its mission: “In all of these studies an effort will be made to move from the impact of the railroad in the specific area under consideration to an analogy with the possible space impact today in similar areas.” While the result was disappointing at the time there remain lessons to be gained in exploring the historical analogue of railroad building and operation in the nineteenth century and their application to an expansion of space exploitation. While many are familiar with the enticing of American transcontinental railroad construction through land grants, national, state, and local governments had engaged in a range other stimulative efforts to facilitate railroad development. These included tax breaks, investment credits, and otherwise favorable decisions supporting these business interests. It also involved in some instances direct subsidies for a time, monopolies not only on railroad operations but also in ancillary and even tertiary industries, and changes to regulations to ease requirements for labor, safety, and other factors. This paper revisits this analogue, drawing several key findings from the railroad experience. It suggests that there is a broad range of options that have been pursued in the past to stimulate investment in infrastructure—in this case in railroads—that have application for future space operations. Not all of these options were successful—some failed outright and others had detrimental unintended consequences—and that will be discussed as well.

Your thoughts on this topic are most welcome.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge”


k5870Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. By Bernard S. Cohn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

This is a collection of five previously published essays that explore aspects of British colonialism in India during its five centuries of involvement there. This collection originally published in the 1980s and 1990s offers insights into how the English collection, organization, and systematization of knowledge about Indian society led to a belief in the Indian inferiority and therefore absolved the empire of guilt about the colonial status it placed the Indian subcontinent under. In essence, the British constructed a mythical India that deserved, and was even raised through the cultural hegemony and political control emphasized by Great Britain.

In this decidedly challenging book Bernard S. Cohn, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, lays out a model for understanding empire using the British construction of India as an example. He views it as fundamentally an intellectual and cultural phenomenon. Like the work of Edward Said, Cohn helped to establish the modern conceptions of colonialism with this important study. The first major section deals with language, both that of command and that of subservience, as the British asserted control over India in the eighteenth century. Gaining a knowledge of the many languages of the region, and codifying the people who spoke them under a single English language, enforced the sense of control the empire exercised over their daily lives.

Likewise, the imposition of law—both British precedent and Indian practice—under a single legal system ensured suzerainty over the colonial population. Through the use of legal mechanisms, Cohn finds that the British not only established order in India but also established legitimacy as the rulers of the vast “other” of the population. It reaffirmed British power; it also ensured Indian submission to a system that kept order and meted out rational responses to practices.

Cohn also demonstrates the collection of cultural, historical, and sacred relics from India helped British scholars create a sense of what it meant to be Indian, and to establish a chronology of the people. That construction might bear little relationship to the reality of the situation but it allowed for the codification of a set of knowledge that enabled the British to “make sense” of those peoples. Antiquarian collections, museum pieces, archaeological excavation, and studies of art and literature led to a sense of the inferior state of the Indian peoples deserving too be ruled. Finally, Cohn analyzes Indian dress and its relationship to English customs, suggests that clothes have served always as a measure of setting groups apart, both those engaging in colonialism and those fighting it.

This book is a fascinating foray into the concept of “otherness” and how cultures set one another apart. It forces one to think about these relations in ways different from the norm.

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Ten Great Improvised Scenes on Film


In honor of the passing of Robin Williams, CineFix has offered up a list of 10 outstanding improvised movie scenes. They include disturbing scenes by Marlo Brando and Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now, Malcolm McDowell’s “Singing in the Rain” scene from A Clockwork Orange, Bill Murray’s “Cinderella story” scene from Caddyshack,  Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining, and several scenes from the late Robin Williams. Some are hilarious, others are moving, a few are just plain creepy. What’s missing? I guess I would have included Neve Campbell’s When Will I Be Loved (2004), a largely improvised movie as an object lesson in what not to do with improvisation. It had long boring scenes, poor lines for the actors, etc. In fact, it was more like life than I wanted. Anyway, this is an interesting clip of great improvisations.

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Announcing the Publication of “Hubble’s Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It”


Hubble's Legacy coverDavid H. DeVorkin and I have just published a collected work on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble’s Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It appeared in August 2014 (ISBN 978-1-935623-32-8) as part of the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press and is available for free download here. Print versions may also be purchased.

The blurb reads:

The development and operation of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have resulted in many rich legacies, most particularly in science and technology—but in culture as well. It is also the first telescope in space that has been utilized as effectively as if it were situated on a mountaintop here on earth, accessible for repair and improvement when needed. This book, which includes contributions from historians of science, key scientists and administrators, and one of the principal astronauts who led many of the servicing missions, is meant to capture the history of this iconic instrument. The book covers three basic phases of HST’s history and legacy: (1) conceiving and selling the idea of a large orbiting optical telescope to astronomers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Congress, its creation as the HST, and its definition as a serviceable mission; (2) its launch, the discovery of the flawed mirror, the engineering of the mirror fix, subsequent servicing missions, decisions on upgrades, and the controversy over a “final” servicing mission; and (3) HST’s public image after launch—how the mirror fix changed its public image, how the HST then changed the way we visualize the universe, and how the public saved the final HST servicing mission. Collectively, this work offers a measured assessment of the HST and its contributions to science over more than 23 years. It brings together contributions from scholars, engineers, scientists, and astronauts to form an integrated story and to assess the long-term results from the mission.

Chapters include:

Part 1: Building the Hubble Space Telescope
Introduction: The Power of an Idea — Robert W. Smith
1. Conceiving of the Hubble Space Telescope: Personal Reflections — Nancy Grace Roman
2. Steps Toward the Hubble Space Telescope — C. Robert O’Dell
3. Building the Hubble Space Telescope as a Serviceable National Facility — Edward J. Weiler

Part 2: Crisis after Launch—Restoring Hubble’s Promise
Introduction: Servicing the Telescope — Joseph N. Tatarewicz
4. Constructing the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 — John Trauger
5. The Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) — Harold J. Reitsema
6. Hubble: Mission Impossible — John M. Grunsfeld

Part 3: The Impact of Hubble
Introduction: The Impact of the Hubble Space Telescope — Steven J. Dick
7. Recommissioning Hubble: Refurbished and Better than Ever — Kenneth R. Sembach
8. The Secrets of Hubble’s Success — David S. Leckrone
9. Creating Hubble’s Imagery — Zoltan Levay
10. Displaying the Beauty of the Truth: Hubble Images as Art and Science — Elizabeth A. Kessler
EPILOGUE: Exhibiting the Hubble Space Telescope — David DeVorkin, with sidebar by Joseph N. Tatarewicz

APPENDIX: The Decision to Cancel the Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 4 (and Its Reversal) — Steven J. Dick

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Turning the Black Sox White”


pMLB2-18953670dtTurning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey. By Tim Hornbaker. New York: Sports Publishing, 2014.

The dominant interpretation of Charles Comiskey was established for most in the United States by  Eliot Asinof in his 1963 book 8 Men Out, made into a superb movie of the same name by John Sayles in 1988. It emphasized Comiskey’s penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious ownership of the Chicago White Sox American League franchise as THE reason for the players on his team throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. This book takes on that interpretation and presents a convincing alternative to that dominant interpretation.

Tim Hornbaker offers a fine biography of Charles Comiskey from his time as a star first baseman with the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s to the establishment and building of a powerful American League team, the Chicago White Sox. The Browns ran away with the pennant in 1885 and won the American Association championship each year between 1885 and 1888 under Comiskey’s leadership. When he first came to St. Louis from the Dubuque Rabbits minor league team, Comiskey received a measly $90 a month. Comiskey worked wonders with the team then demanded, and received, top pay of $5,000 per year. During that four-year period when the St. Louis Browns were the rulers of the American Association, they played post-season series with the winners of the National League pennant, although the term “World Series” had yet to be dreamed up. The Browns tied Chicago’s White Stockings (3-3-1) in the 1885 World Series and defeating them four games to two the next year for the American Association’s only Series triumph over their NL rivals.

In his post-playing years Comiskey helped to found the American League, and built the White Sox into one of its powerhouses. His teams won pennants in 1901, 1906, 1917, and 1919, and the World Series in 1906 and 1917. Of course, the White Sox would have won the 1919 World Series except for a betting scandal in which eight players were implicated for throwing the series. The so-called “Black Sox” have forever been tied to Comiskey and his reputation has suffered through it.

As presented in this very convincing book, Comiskey has received a bad rap. He was presumably an imperious, penny-pinching, aristocrat. He was anything but. He was a self-made man; he had a commitment to presenting quality baseball to the masses for a reasonable price. He paid his players reasonable money, the White Sox had one of the highest team salaries of 1919. There were 15 players in the American League with salaries of $6,000 or more; five of them were members of the White Sox.

One of the most onerous criticisms of Comiskey in the Black Sox scandal was that he underpaid Eddie Cicotte, who went 29-7 in 1919 and then denied him a promised $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. To make matters worse, the legend is that Comiskey ordered Cicotte benched for the last part of the season so he had to no opportunity to win that 30th game. It was because of this that Cicotte agreed to throw the series; in return he received $10,000 from gamblers.

The problem with this story is that it is untrue. Cicotte had a $5,000 base salary and earned a $3,000 bonus in 1919. In 1918 and 1919, the years when Cicotte was a leading pitcher in the league, he earned $15,000 in salary and bonuses. Only Washington Senator Walter Johnson, clearly the best pitcher in the league, earned more at $19,000. There is no evidence that Cicotte was promised $10,000, and there is certainly no reason to believe he was benched at the end of the season.

So if Comiskey was not the skinflint rumored, what led the White Sox to throw the series? The answer, as Hornbaker makes clear, is both more complex and less easily understood. Each of the players had personal reasons for seeking the main chance with the gamblers. Chick Gandil wanted to go back to California and needed a stake; Cicotte had a garage and a new farm in Michigan and needed to resolve cash flow problems. Other players had differing reasons. None of those banned blamed Comiskey at the time for throwing of the series.

When reading this book I was reminded of my own work on Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City/Oakland As in the 1960s and 1970s, who was well known as a penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious owner whose players hated him. Some players hated him; some didn’t. Finley was not a penurious as some believed. He was also committed to making baseball available to larger numbers, and brought innovation to the game. One big difference between Comiskey and Finley: Comiskey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Finley is not. I believe Finley belongs there just as much as Comiskey.

Posted in Baseball, Charles O. Finley, History, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Guaranteeing Aeronautical Innovation: Is that Possible?


The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

For the twentieth century no set of technological innovations are more intriguing than those associated with aviation. Perhaps no technological development in this century has more fundamentally transformed human life than the airplane, coupled with its ground support apparatus and infrastructure. Why did aeronautical technology take the shape it did; which individuals and organizations were involved in driving it; what factors influenced particular choices of scientific objectives and technologies to be used; and what were the political, economic, managerial, international, and cultural contexts in which the events of the aeronautical age have unfolded?

More importantly, how has innovation affected this technology? If there is a folklore in the public mind about the history of aeronautical engineering, it is the story of genius and its role in innovation. Americans love the idea of the lone inventor, especially if that inventor strives against odds to develop some revolutionary piece of technology in a basement or garage. There have been enough instances of this in U.S. history to feed this folklore and allow it to persist. The “Renaissance man” with broad background who can build a technological system from the ground up permeates this ideal.

Individualism and versatility has characterized this concept of engineering. Its quintessential expression was Leonardo da Vinci, the leading figure in the technology of his time. It has also been more recently expressed in the work of Thomas A. Edison, whose many accomplishments in technology have been recognized as seminal to modern life. These same virtuoso expressions of engineering mastery have also been recognized in the work of U.S. aeronautics and rocket pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright and Robert H. Goddard, who spent most of their careers as lone researchers. The Wrights secretively developed their flying machine  in their native Dayton, Ohio, and testing it on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Goddard designed and tested ever more sophisticated rockets on a piece of isolated land near Roswell, New Mexico. Neither sought outside assistance beyond funding nor welcomed colleagues. Their’s were solitary accomplishments.

At the same time, the “Renaissance man” has never been very common in the history of science and technology, and certainly not in the rise of aeronautics. The kind of lone wolves that make up the folklore, reinforced by the reality of a few bona fide geniuses, are rare indeed. In twentieth century aeronautical engineering the increasing depth of information in the individual disciplines ensure that no one person can now master the multifarious skills necessary in the research, design, development, and building of a piece of aerospace

In the latter nineteenth century leading American engineering educators made a conscious decision to emphasize theoretical engineering issues. Then they had to reintegrate the discipline so that new engineering accomplishments could be realized. The discussion that follows describes this evolutionary process. This process has affected major aspects of public policy ever since, changing fundamentally how individuals perceive “big government” and its management of issues ranging from medicine to nuclear power.

There were two central reasons for this change. The first is relatively easy to comprehend, the development of something as complex as an aircraft capable of operating in three dimensions is too large for any one individual to oversee, regardless of how much mastery or however large a body of knowledge might exist in one expert’s mind. The breadth and depth of engineering and scientific information is simply too large for any one person to comprehend fully. It must be parceled out and managed through a team approach.

The second reason is more complex, and ultimately more interesting. Before the second world war, by all accounts, engineering education in the United States was overwhelmingly oriented toward training young engineers in a very practical “shop culture.” The orientation of instructors in engineering was not directed toward research and theory, but toward practical application. Where research was conducted, it usually emerged naturally from consulting projects, and focused on the narrow questions informing the consulting work.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

This began to change in the first part of the twentieth century as an influx of European engineers came to the United States and brought their educational ethos to the nation’s academies. In the aerospace engineering community this included such men as Theodore von Kármán, the brilliant Hungarian aerodynamicist and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who came to the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Von Kármán was not only a hard-edged aeronautical engineer, but also a leading theorist who contributed important concepts to aerodynamics. At the same time, the requirements of complex high-technology artifacts required for war prompted the United States to expend for the first time massive amounts of government funding for technology projects. Those with broad-based theoretical implementation were most readily funded.

By the end of World War II, however, most engineering in the United States had become so theoretical that much of its practical application was lost on working technicians. Increasingly, it became difficult to distinguish between engineering projects and purely scientific explorations without immediately practical application. The reasons for this change were soon visible in the engineering discipline. American engineering faculty were no longer necessarily experienced in industry’s practical needs, and had instead made their careers as theoretically oriented researchers who published scholarly papers in journals but did not design and build machines for public use. Two subcultures emerged that were sometimes contradictory and often combative.

The more complex the theoretical foundations, the more complex the components and the less likely that a single individual, or a single genius with some assistants, could carry to successful completion pathbreaking development. Certainly, this was true in aerospace technology, which has since World War II of necessity been a group effort with various individuals in charge of certain segments of the work under some overall management to keep the effort afloat. There might be an overall project manager, but the demands of the project always forced more breadth and depth of knowledge than even a genius of a da Vinci or a Wright or a Goddard could master. Indeed, it might be that the “Renaissance man” was a chimera all along, for complete success was always beyond even the most creative genius’ grasp.

For the successful accomplishment of major aeronautical endeavors engineers have adopted a systems management and integration approach. Each government laboratory, university, and corporate research facility had differing perspectives on how to go about the tasks of accomplishing these endeavors but all parceled work among teams of engineers and technicians.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

One of the fundamental tenets of the program management concept was that three critical factors—cost, schedule, and reliability—were interrelated, and had to be managed as a group. Many also recognized these factors’ constancy; if program managers held cost to a specific level, then one of the other two factors, or both of them to a somewhat lesser degree, would be adversely affected. The schedules, dictated by scientific or political requirements, were often firm. Since aircraft had to accomplish practical tasks, program managers always placed a heavy emphasis on reliability, so that failures would be both predictable and minor.

The significance of both of these factors have often forced the third factor, cost, much higher than might have otherwise been the case. To accomplish these goals, aeronautical design organizations increasingly became complex bureaucracies exercising centralized authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics, training, and operations. Understanding the management of complex structures for the successful completion of a multifarious task was an important outgrowth of these efforts. Getting all of the personnel elements to work together has always challenged program managers, regardless of whether or not they were civil service, industry, or university personnel.

At the same time, as aircraft became more costly to develop and organizations became more complex to manage the aircraft system—establishing structures to ensure control over the effort—they set up boundaries often impassable for individual innovation. An irony of the first magnitude is that the most technologically-driven industry in the United States—one built on a series of pathbreaking innovations—has become so expensive to participate in that firms involved in it can hardly afford to support potentially excellent ideas and see them to completion. This has been partially mitigated by efforts in government laboratories and in universities, but too often radical innovations do not find easy adoption.

Image 3-3

Three Airbus passenger liners in formation.

To be successful in aircraft design, with its rapidly evolving technologies, an organization must be able to stimulate and simulate change, gamble on the future, have a vision that is multi-faceted as well as clear as to objectives, and be able to allocate limited resources and to make external allies. It must reward or tolerate risk-taking and expect some failures. This is a very tall order when dealing with a system as complex and expensive as aviation, where an airframe manufacturer literally bets the company on any new design that it offers. Caution tends to rule in that very dizzying environment.

The logical outgrowth of this has been a search for what amounts to “command innovation.” Can a firm, a government, a university, a research facility, or a person arrange for innovation that will solve some great problem in aeronautical technology? Guaranteeing innovation accounts for not an insignificant quantity of effort in the field. But there seems not to be a formula for such developments and a guarantee for any research project cannot be assured. History suggests that those who contend otherwise are fools or charlatans or both.

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Are There Ways to Speed Up MLB Baseball Games?


The opening ceremonies of the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins.

The opening ceremonies in 2014 of the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins.

There has been a lot of commentary of late about the length of time being required to play major league baseball games. I know from personal experience that many of the Washington Nationals games are more than three hours in length, and it is not uncommon that game can be hour hours or even longer.

Many people have offered fixes for this problem. Most of them require instituting a clock on various aspects of the game. Those include limiting the seconds between pitches or the time the catcher and pitcher can confer on the mound. Other ideas limit the number of trips coaches and managers can make to the mound, the number of warm-up pitches a reliever can take, or the number of times the infielders can sling the ball around the horn.

Any or all of these, and probably others, might be instituted. I hope MLB does not institute a clock. Baseball is the only major sport without a clock and I would like to keep it that way. But the problem is real; we need to speed up games. Here are five half-baked, screwball, tongue-firmly-in-cheek ideas for how to solve the problem.

1. Eliminate extra innings. In the event of a tie at the end of nine innings there should be a home run derby to decide the game, each side sending its best hitter to take ten batting practice pitches and whoever hits the most out wins the game.

2. Eliminate runaway games. If a team scores nine runs, the game is called at the end of the full inning with the victory going to the highest scorer.

3. Alternatively, any game reaching the four hour mark will be decided by the home run derby discussed above.

4. Another alterative, for any game reaching four hours in duration the mascots from the two teams will race around the field to decide the game.

5. Let the spectators decide the winner, again probably at the four hour mark, by texting their vote for one team or the other based on whatever criteria they choose.

Did I say that these are half-baked, screwball, tongue-firmly-in-cheek ideas? They are. Don’t take them seriously.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Historians of the American Frontier”


downloadHistorians of the American Frontier: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Edited by John R. Wunder. (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1988. Pp. viii, 827. Bibliography, index. ISBN 0-313-24899-0, $75.00.)

I have been asked recently by several people what they should know about the history of the American frontier, especially in relation to the history of space exploration. Although this is a a book more than 25 years old, it is still a good place to start. Frontier historians have been especially influential interpreters of the American past, and I believe that is one of the reasons that the frontier experience has long been linked to the space arena.

A generation embraced Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis in the first half of the twentieth century, regardless of its sweeping and not always appropriate generalizations, as the explanation for American uniqueness. Historians of the American Frontier, therefore, is an important attempt to come to grips with the people who made the frontier the most significant field of historical study in the first decades of the twentieth century and of those who have carried on the torch.

John R. Wunder, director of the Great Plains Center at the University of Nebraska when this book was published, presents an impressive set of essays on the lives and works of fifty-seven frontier historians. Each chapter, written by a different specialist, includes a brief biography and a complete summary and analysis of publications. Wunder used four criteria to select the people included in this collection: they had to be dead, had to be recognized as leaders in frontier studies, had to produce broadly defined frontier history, and did not have to be either academically oriented or even historians in any strict sense.

Any collected work’s quality is uneven and this book is no exception. Some of the essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding Robert P. Swierenga’s entry on James C. Malin. There are, however, two built-in difficulties with collections of this type. First, although Historians of the American Frontier is an important attempt to assess frontier historians and their literature, it views the subject from the perspective of individuals only. There remains, unfortunately, no synthesis of the overall field of study. Each historians’ work stands essentially alone.

Second, historians are unevenly represented. Angie Debo, Le Roy Hafen, Reuben Gold Thwaites, Dale L. Morgan, and even Francis Parkman are not found here while less worthy entries abound. The editor anticipated this criticism by suggesting that no historians were “left out by design or accident” and that a second bio-bibliographical volume would re-solve the omissions. In spite of these criticisms, Wunder has produced a fine book that will be permanently useful to scholars, making readily available in a single volume the personalities and core themes of American frontier historiography. It is a useful addition to the tools of the historians in exploring the American frontier.

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The NACA Makes the Jet Engine both More Efficient and More Powerful


NACA-Research-Memo-235x176I have been working on a general history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, and I have been working on a section of jet research in the 1940s and 1950s. Comments on this draft are welcome.

While the NACA missed the opportunity to pioneer the jet engine, by far the most revolutionary technology applied to aircraft since the Wright brothers, in the period after World War II engineers largely at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland transformed aviation with their powerful, efficient, and safe jet engines. The success of jet aircraft in both Germany and Great Britain in World War II spurred American efforts to catch up to this technology. While the NACA had failed to the technology, its leaders were intent on making the technology better and exploiting in every way possible. The Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center, forwarded a report in December 1945 entitled “Survey of Fundamental Problems Requiring Research” that recommended the expansion of  research on the technologies of turbojets, ramjets, and rockets.

The report concluded: “The simultaneous development of aerodynamic shapes for high-speed flight, and the use of jet-reaction power systems has suddenly placed the aeronautical engineer in position to attain supersonic speeds, but as yet only the outer fringes of research on this mode of transportation have been touched.” The fundamental technology that the NACA pioneered was the axial flow compressor. The first jets were powered by centrifugal compressors; systems that were inefficient and underpowered for anything but the lightest fighter jets. What was needed was axial flow compressors, but the technologies were not well known and most of the baseline knowledge was limited to a few empirical tests over a limited aerodynamic regime that emphasized airfoil research and little else. NACA researchers would change that in the years the followed.

As researchers George E. Smith and David A. Mindell noted, axial flow compression was attained by “stacking a sequence of these airfoil profiles radially on top of one another as if the air flows through the blade row in a modular series of radially stacked two-dimensional blade passages.” The expansion of this approach required a detailed, lengthy, and expensive research agenda only able to be carried out by a government laboratory. Several different efforts emerged at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, so named after the passing of the longtime NACA Director of Research in 1948. The contribution was a three-volume “Compressor Bible,” issued in final form in 1956 after a decade of research at Lewis.

The GE J-79 Jet Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The GE J-79 Jet Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

This study was based on a pain-staking empirical research effort that included wind tunnel research and flight research, as well as theoretical studies. This research set the standard for knowledge about axial-flow compression for more than twenty-five years after its publication. According to Smith and Mindell:

The empirical component of the NACA design method was based primarily on a huge number of cascade performance tests of NACA 65-Series airfoils carried out at Langley.…These data allowed designers first to select preferred airfoil shapes along a blade to achieve a given design performance, including thermodynamic loss requirements, and then to predict the performance of the airfoils at specified off-design operating conditions. In large part because of the availability of this data-base, NACA 65-Series airfoils became the most widely used airfoils in axial compressors.

The knowledge gained through the NACA’s research filtered out of the agency through the usual means of technical reports and personal contacts as well as the departure from the NACA of several key researchers who moved to General Electric and developed axial-flow compressor engines, especially turbofans, into the mainstay of American jet technology. Langley’s Jack Erwin and Lewis’s John Klapproth, Karl Kovach, and Lin Wright departed for GE in 1955 and 1956.

John Blanton of GE Aircraft Engines.

John Blanton of GE Aircraft Engines.

These engineers proved instrumental in designing the path-breaking large axial-flow turbofan, the J-79 military jet engine powering the B-58 Hustler, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, and North American A-5 Vigilante, oriented toward performance as high as Mach 2. The commercial equivalent, the CJ805, powered the Convair 880 and 990 airliners. Under the leadership of John Blanton at GE, this team successfully developed a powerful engine that found use on both across a broad spectrum. The NACA’s contribution included not only basic research but design expertise. The role of Lin Wright proved especially critical; he was an African American engineer from Wayne State University in Detroit who worked for a decade at Lewis, and then transitioned to GE just as the Civil Rights Crusade was emerging as a force in American politics. Far from an activist, Wright contributed most to that cause through his excellence as an engineer on the cutting edge of aeronautical research and development.

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The NACA and the Documenting of Progress in Aerodynamics


NACA LogoThe aeronautical research that the NACA between 1915 and 1958 undertook found dissemination in a complex set of technical publications that the agency made available to all on an equal basis. Most NACA research was accomplished “in-house” by scientists or engineers on the federal payroll. Work conducted under research authorizations might be of short-duration or could be years in the accomplishment. Short-duration work was often aimed at resolving a specific technical problem, many being tied to the development of a military aircraft prototype. One example of this approach was the effort to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of aircraft, an especially important activity in World War II as the NACA performed worked on drag cleanup for 23 different military aircraft.

Especially when the research was of long duration the NACA issued “Technical Notes” partway through containing interim results and “Technical Reports” with major research conclusions at the end of the effort. No one and no political issue, old NACA hands recollected, infringed upon the presentation of their findings in the most evenhanded manner possible. Thus they believed that partly for this reason the organization became the premier aeronautical research institution in the world during the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the longer research projects took years to complete and were redefined and given additional monies repeatedly to pursue technological questions. A good example of a longer-term effort was Research Authorization 201, “Investigation of Various Methods of Improving Wing Characteristics by Control of the Boundary Layer,” signed on January 21, 1927. It provided for broad-based research at NACA on methods for either blowing or sucking the boundary layer along the upper surface of the wings, thus maintaining laminar flow and preventing airflow separation. Research took place between 1927 and 1944, taking a variety of twists and turns. Those efforts were channeled at first toward immediate practical objectives that could be used by industry and other clients. Later the NACA staff pursued other avenues of exploration, and the result was that the NACA was able to greatly advance boundary layer control through modification of airfoil shape, demonstrating the serendipitous nature of research. The boundary layer research by NACA engineers is still being used as the foundation for current research efforts.

As research was being conducted the NACA printed its findings, and this proved to be the most significant output from the agency’s activities. Beginning in the 1920s the NACA issued several types of reports describing research findings:

  • Technical Reports (TR): the most prestigious, most polished, most important, and most widely distributed report, TRs described the final results of a research effort and made “lasting contributions to the body of aeronautical knowledge.”
  • Technical Notes (TN): TNs reported on work in progress, offered interim findings, or served as final reports for less significant research activities.
  • Research Memorandum (RM): introduced in 1946, RMs reported on research undertaken as classified work for the military.
  • Advanced Confidential Reports (ACR): also introduced after World War II, ACRs reported on sensitive military aeronautical subjects such as jet engines, low-drag wings, or investigations of specific military aircraft types.
  • Bulletins: were short progress reports on limited phases of larger research projects.
  • Memorandum Reports (MR): reported on pieces of aeronautical research of interest to a very small group of clients, generally on a specific type of aircraft or engine design.
  • Technical Memoranda (TM): reported on aeronautical research conducted somewhere other than at NACA, often these were translations of technical articles published in a foreign language.

During the existence of NACA, it printed more than 16,000 research reports of one type or another. TRs were publicly available, readily accessible to anyone with a need to know the information. They were distributed to a huge mailing list that included laboratories, libraries, factories, and military installations around the world. They became famous for their thoroughness and accuracy, and became the rock upon which NACA built its reputation as one of the best aeronautical research institutions in the world. Other reports were less widely distributed, but unless classified for security purposes, were available to anyone with an interest.

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Pearl I. Young

The architect of the technical reporting was Pearl I. Young (1895-1968), who came to work at the NACA’s Langley Laboratory in 1922 after graduating with a physics degree from the University of North Dakota. After working in the instrumentation division for a few years she suggested that Langley required someone to oversee the technical reports system, which at that time was in disarray. Young took on that responsibility and led the effort until World War II. She created the multitude of documents issued by the NACA, enforced the NACA style of presentation on authors, ensured technical verisimilitude, and handled document distribution far and wide.

Young preached that knowledge is the end product of a research laboratory, and that accordingly the preparation of the research report must receive special emphasis. He insisted that these documents present their data “tactfully, strategically, and with telling force.” She ensured that all publications were accurate, well organized, and effectively structured. Not to give appropriate attention to the presentation of research would ensure that the report would be neither read nor used. She enforced a harsh clarity on the technical reports process at the NACA, one that quickly paid dividends as the results of the agency’s researchers gained stature around the globe for both their path-breaking results and their effective communication.

Young’s oversight of the technical report program was always exacting, sometimes to the consternation both of NACA engineers who wanted to see their work disseminated promptly and viewed Young’s efforts as bogging down the process, and to industry or military clients who wanted prompt answers to aeronautical problems. She argued that the quality of the final product was more important than the speed with which it appeared; Young had all documents extensively vetted by a panel of engineering peers but as a means of speeding the process she also allowed preliminary reports to circulate to key users. Before a report was final, however, authors made revisions, sometimes extensive revisions, before editorial work was completed on the publication. Young insisted that all reports be “checked and rechecked for consistency, logical analysis, and absolute accuracy.”

Pearl Young went on to other responsibilities during World War II at the NACA’s Cleveland, Ohio, Aircraft Engine Research Center. She eventually moved to Pennsylvania State University to teach engineering physics but returned to NASA in 1958 before retiring in 1961. She commented on many occasions about the noble effort they were engaged in—separating the real from the imagined in flight—adding that “There are just as many aeronautical research problems for you to solve by the application of brains and hard work as there were on the day Orville Wright piloted the first airplane at Kitty Hawk in 1903.”

Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees at Langley's 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference. Conference guests assembled underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. (NASA Phtoto L-9850)

Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees at Langley’s 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers’ Conference. Conference guests assembled underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. (NASA Phtoto L-9850)

The research reported in these technical publications was never presented quickly enough to satisfy clients, although Young always defended the deliberate process she followed to ensure the best possible product. This, however, was nothing compared to the more difficult challenge of remaining an honest broker on research projects. Industry forever wanted to use the NACA as its private R&D facility. Accordingly, the agency had to establish a policy of not working on a specific type of aircraft design, because it smacked of catering to one particular company. Instead, it agreed to work on problems common to all aspects of flight, such as the engine cowling problem for which it received its first Collier Trophy in 1929. It also published research results and distributed reports on an equal basis to all. The NACA often violated these policies when dealing with its principal client, the military services.

Beginning in the 1930s, because of pressure to cut the federal budget, the NACA also established a table of fees for charging private companies, usually those involved in the aeronautical industry, when it pursued research problems they suggested. In this scenario the requestor paid all costs of research. In return, the NACA agreed to give the requestor the results of the research, but also retained the right to release findings it deemed in the national interest. This approach had two negative effects: (1) it allowed larger aircraft firms with money to spend on these problems an opportunity to squeeze out weaker firms who could not compete with cutting edge technology; and (2) it dissuaded some industry leaders from asking the NACA to work on pressing aeronautical problems because of both lack of money and a fear that their investment in the research would be lost when the findings were distributed to the world.

naca-pulsejet-22-tests-coverDuring the course of the NACA’s history between 1915 and 1958 it did very little “project” work of its own, at least as this term has come to be known at NASA. The NACA’s emphasis was on research for the use of outside entities. The principal means of transferring this research knowledge was through a series of reports which could be used as the clients saw fit. An important secondary means of transferring this information was through the annual conferences sponsored by NACA after 1926.

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