Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California. Western Histories. Edited by Peter J. Westwick. Foreword by William Deverell. (Berkeley: University of California Press; San Marino: Huntington Library, 2012. xii + 308 pp. Illustrations, table, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95, £30.95.)
Arguably the most important technological development of the twentieth century has been the creation of machines that gave individuals the ability to fly. An eons old dream to shed the bounds of the Earth, only after 1903 with the first flight of the Wright Brothers did this goal become a reality. At first the air industry was quite small and dispersed throughout the United States, but it grew quickly and many of its largest firms located in southern California. By World War II this industry had grown into a huge sector of the U.S. economy, employing more than one million workers and contributing more than five percent to the gross domestic product. During the Cold War era of the latter half of the twentieth century the relationship of southern California to the industries, economies, and culture of flight remained tightly interlocked and this relationship has continued in the twenty-plus years since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Blue Sky Metropolis is an essential work in any effort to understand the significance of aerospace technology in the life and culture of southern California. Editor Peter J. Westwick, whose leadership of the Aerospace History Project sponsored by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West has been exemplary, has assembled a creditable collection of essays on various aspects of flight in the region. As in all such collections some chapters are more interesting and valuable than others, but collectively they are a useful whole. Some of these are personal essays, such as those by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord; others are standard types of research papers that build on existing knowledge to deepen understanding, such as those by Mihir Pandya, Sherman N. Mullin, Dwayne A. Day, Glenn E. Bugos, and Wade Graham; and some, such as those by Anita Seth, Stuart W. Leslie, Peter J. Westwick, W. Patrick McCray, and Zuoyue Wang, break new and important ground. Some of these chapters are part of the new social history in the best sense of the term, especially Wang’s study of Chinese American scientists and engineers and Seth on aerospace labor relations.
Especially useful was Westwick’s article on the relationship between Hollywood special effects technicians and aerospace visualization such as what NASA produces about planetary exploration for public consumption. Also fascinating is McCray’s investigation of the relationship between right wing Cold Warriors and the ideas of space colonization emphasized in such pro-space groups as the L5 Society. Finally, Stuart Leslie’s contribution on aerospace modernism breaks new ground in the relationship between these two arenas in the twentieth century.
Overall, this is a very strong collection with some essays more path-breaking than others. It is rounded out by an interesting photo essay and a selective bibliography with emphasis on “selective.” Raising as many questions as it answers, Blue Sky Metropolis opens intriguing new avenues for investigation.