|Author(s):||Pattillo, Donald M.|
|Reviewer(s):||Dawson, Virginia P.|
Published by EH.NET (March 1999)
Donald M. Pattillo, Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft
Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 459 pp. $45.00
(hardcover), ISBN: 0-472-10869-7.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Virginia P. Dawson, History Enterprises, Inc.,
Pushing the Envelope by Donald Pattillo is the
first comprehensive history of an industry not quite one hundred years old. Dr.
Pattillo is an educational consultant in Acworth, Georgia, who has spent many
years delving into primary sources and piecing together this intriguing,
convoluted and sometimes
unheroic story. To Pattillo, the “aviation men”
who built this industry were not short-sighted financiers, but risk-takers
willing to invest in innovation. Unlike the automobile industry it is often
compared to, the dependence of the aerospace industry on government
contracting, especially during the Cold War, left it insulated from market
forces and vulnerable to abuses triggered by human greed.
One of the main themes of the Pattillo’s book is how government support
influenced aircraft development during various periods of aviation history.
Pattillo discusses how in the industry’s early years, while European
governments seemed to understand the military significance to the Wright
brothers’ invention, their efforts were viewed with skepticism and indifference
in America. Capital was hard to come by for all the early pioneers of
flight. Glenn L. Martin, for example, used a flair for showmanship to build a
public following and sell aircraft to wealthy sportsmen. Even friendship with
Billy Mitchell could not assure him of military orders. Nevertheless,
government procurement and airmail contracts kept the fledgling industry alive
until Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. The aviation
boom carried the industry through the Great Depression giving rise to new
firms and the emergence of the modern all-metal airliner. Up to 1938, however,
the aircraft industry as a whole was still small, with barely enough domestic
orders to stay viable.
All that would change with the coming of World War II when rapid expansion
made aircraft among the nation’s largest manufacturing industries.
Thereafter it remained an essential element of the defense establishment.
Pattillo regards the decade of the 1950s as among the most “exciting and
fruitful” for the industry–a decade when new models, the transition to jet
propulsion, and missile development reflected a “pace of progress” unequalled
in the history of the industry (p. 199).
The final chapters of the book are in many ways the most enlightening because
they break new historical ground. Pattillo discusses the difficulties and
abuses of defense procurement in the new aerospace industry during the Cold
War. “The inherent dilemma,” he writes, “was that contractors were financially
dependent upon government, while the government remained technologically
dependent upon a concentrated industry”
(p. 247). By the late 1960s the aerospace industry was the nation’s largest
employer, with 834,000 people directly involved in building aircraft.
However, it remained a highly competitive oligopoly, always dependent on the
government for survival. Profits were never high, the financial risks daunting,
and the opportunities for graft and corruption often irresistible.
The value of Pattillo’s work for historians of business is the synthesis that
he has produced. He provides the reader with the sweep of the development of
the industry from its beginning to the present. He has avoided technical
language while paying attention to technology, treated the financial aspects
without excessive detail, and has produced a balanced and critical commentary
on some of the more unsavory aspects of the industry. In addition to Pattillo’s
fine research and strong writing style,
the numerous tables throughout the book, along with a detailed chronology of
the aircraft industry make the book a valuable resource tool. It should be
required reading for all students of aerospace industry.
(Virginia P. Dawson is the founder of History Enterprises, Inc. She is author
of Engines and Innovation: Lewis Laboratory and American Propulsion
Technology and “E.G. Bailey and the Invention and Marketing of the Bailey
Boiler Meter,” in Technology and Culture (1996). She is currently
working on a book on a history of the Centaur program for NASA with co-author
and colleague, Mark D. Bowles.)
|Subject(s):||Industry: Manufacturing and Construction|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: WWII and post-WWII|