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The Social and Cultural History of Aviation and Spaceflight [ Part 1 ]


In 1946, William F. Ogburn and two colleagues published The Social Effects of Aviation. Ogburn's work, although little noticed at the time, represented a breakthrough in the ways people thought and wrote about flying. Based on his sociological research, Ogburn made a number of insightful predictions about the influence of aviation on American society. His main contribution, however, was as a voice of reason and restraint in a period of intense and misguided optimism about the future of aviation in the United States. Ogburn's sober views on aviation's prospects were based on what ordinary people were thinking and feeling rather than on what industry moguls and promoters foolishly believed possible. The publication of Ogburn's work was a harbinger of the ways in which the writing of the history of aviation and space flight could be enlarged upon to provide fresh insights into the subject.1


By and large, the enterprise has been an enthusiast's realm that focuses primarily on the industry's technological achievements, canonizes the early aircraft pioneers, and ignores anything that might shed negative light on the subject. Nevertheless, the advent of modern movements in historiography, or the methodology of researching and writing history, has had some influence on the writing of the history of aviation and space flight. The French Annales school, led by Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, which used quantitative methods and material culture—the artifacts of everyday life—was influential in changing the way history was written in the United States and elsewhere. In the United States, the so-called "New Social History," which was influenced by the annalistes, sought to shift the emphasis in historical writing from political history to social and economic matters. Cultural (in the anthropological sense) history was a term developed to describe the shift in historiography that took place to encompass concerns with "culture," or the ways in which societies choose to live and transmit their values to succeeding generations. Finally, the combination of a new historiography with increasing interest on the part of trained academic historians in aviation and space flight as legitimate topics in the history of technology have given historical treatment of the subject matter a new dimension.


In 1983, Joseph Corn, for example, turned the history of aviation on its ear in his book, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950. Corn contended that enthusiasm for aviation had been nearly religious in nature, and that "as Americans searched for language appropriate to the excitement they felt for the airplane, they inevitably borrowed from [the] Christian tradition. They often spoke of themselves as 'disciples,' 'apostles,' and 'prophets,' and thought of aviation as a 'winged gospel' or 'holy cause,' one that would literally transform the conditions of life." Corn's hypothesis could well account for the iconographic manner in which the history of aviation has been written.2


After the publication of The Winged Gospel, nothing was ever the same. In 1989, James Hansen of Auburn University published an article in Technology and Culture, the journal of the Society for the History of Technology, titled "Aviation History in the Wider View." In it he contended that "since the end of World War II the number of scholarly monographs on a great variety of essential topics in both civil and military aviation history has grown steadily." Nevertheless, Hansen concluded that the history of aviation had been written primarily by enthusiasts. He argued that aviation history "[had] fallen behind other fields . . . wherein broadly synthetic, contextual, and interdisciplinary studies explore the meaning of a particular field of history in terms of what it means to others." He called for historical syntheses that looked at "the social motives, aims, and second-order consequences of the aviation enterprise."3


Implicit in Corn and Hansen's work is that enthusiasm for aviation not only explains the way in which events in the history of aviation took place but that it also influenced the telling of its story. Related to what Corn and Hansen were saying is the deterministic way in which the story of aviation has been related, a not uncommon error in the writing of the history of technology. This view supposes that technological events that are actually "constructed," or man-made, arise as part of the "natural" order of things—one might go as far as to say, "ordained by God." Furthermore, this view supposes that technology, especially the technology of aviation-aerospace, is deterministically progressive; i.e., of necessity a chronicle of higher, farther, faster.


Historian of technology John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., points out that "By telling stories of a consensus, and avoiding the tragedies, nobilities, and follies of conflict, the historian implies that things inevitably turned out as they did because the inherent rationality of events ordained that they would. But nowhere … can we find a master narrative so deeply entrenched in popular imagination and popular language as the mythic idea of progress, particularly technological progress."4


This approach and the traditional view that history is entirely an empirically based search for truth about the past are limited both methodologically and epistemologically. What is needed is a history of aviation and space flight that is open to a variety of methodological approaches, accepting of interdisciplinary studies, and willing to include a variety of source materials. These approaches might include popular culture and media culture, literature and text studies, gender studies, visual culture (art and film), music, material culture, politics, government, and public policy, science, technology, and society, and community studies. 5


Broadening the scope of the approach to the subject tends to obviate the determinist implications of the history of aviation and space flight as it is currently practiced. A social-cultural history approach provides a more sophisticated way of looking at the subject that takes into account the assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, myths, and ideologies that underlie the technology in all of its dimensions. The books and articles listed below (with the exception of those that deal with historiographical methodology) are but a small sample of how historians of aviation and space flight are asking larger questions and providing contextual, multidisciplinary approaches to the subject.


—Dominick Pisano

Curator and Chairman, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution



1.Dominick A. Pisano, "Introduction: Flight and Society," in From Airships to Airbus, vol. 2, Pioneers and Operations, ed. William F. Trimble (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 67.

2. Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America's Love Affair with the Airplane, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), viii.

3.James R. Hansen, "Aviation History in the Wider View," Technology and Culture, July 1989, 643.

4. John M. Staudenmaier, "Rationality versus Contingency in the History of Technology," in Does Technology Drive History: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, eds. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 262.

5. Dominick A. Pisano, "Flight, Society, and Culture Program Opening Remarks," in 1998 National Aerospace Conference Proceedings (Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University, 1999), 7.


Selected Reading List

Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fritzsche, Peter. German Aviation and the Popular Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Goldstein, Laurence. The Flying Machine and Modern Literature. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986.

Hansen, James R. "Aviation History in the Wider View." Technology and Culture, July 1989, 643-656.

Horrigan, Brian. "Popular Culture and Visions of the Future in Space, 1901-2001," in New Perspectives on Technology and American Culture, Bruce Sinclair, ed. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1986.

Jakeman, Robert J. The Divided Skies: Establishing Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992.

McCurdy, Howard E. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York: New York University, 1998.

Noble, David F. "The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration," in The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Ogburn, William Fielding [with the assistance of Jean L. Adams and S.C. Gilfillan]. The Social Effects of Aviation. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1946.

Smith, Merritt Roe and Leo Marx, eds. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Ware, Susan. Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Wohl, Robert. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.