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The Social and Cultural History of Aviation and Spaceflight

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

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