Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1480:
STREAMLINE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1480.

Today, we talk about streamlining. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The watchword of the 1930s was modern. If I knew one thing as a child, it was that I lived in the modern world. It was a world where the vertical lines of art deco were giving way to horizontal streamlined forms. Everything in the 30s, 40s, and 50s was streamlined. The Douglas DC-3 had brought streamlining to passenger airplanes. The Chrysler "Airflow" and the Lincoln "Zephyr" brought it to the automobile. Even my first bike was streamlined.

Earlier in the 20th century, the great German experts in fluid flow had shown us how to shape bodies so as to reduce wind resistance. Streamlining certainly served that function when things moved fast. But my bicycle hardly qualified. Nor did the streamlined Microchef kitchen stove that came out in 1930. Bathrooms were streamlined. Tractors were streamlined. Streamlining was a metaphor for the brave new world we all lived in.

A confusion of design schools competed with each other in the early '30s. The German Bauhaus school had been scattered by the Nazis. Art deco was dying. Neither the classic-colonials nor Le Corbusier and the International School could gain ascendancy. Then streamlining came out of this gaggle, propelled by American industry and making its simple appeal to the child in all of us. It certainly appealed to the child I was then.

Streamlining called up the new high-tech of the 1930s, and it distracted us from the grim realities of the depression. It told us to start buying things again. It told us we could all go fast.

It was hardly one of the great humanist schools of design, but it served a purpose. Of course the Nazis and Bolsheviks used streamlining as a propaganda tool. It fairly smelled of technocracy. And, by the 1950s, streamlining finally gave us the enormous tail-fins and chromium structures that made the automobile seem ridiculous by any esthetic standard.

The large American cars of the '50s were, in fact, true wonders of engineering. They were rugged, long-lived, high-performance machines -- the world standard of their time. But they carried on their backs the dying excesses of that strange design epoch. When you and I look at those cars, we're apt to see only a caricature of real streamlining and overlook the fine engineering.

"When I was a child," said St. Paul, "I thought as a child." Well, I loved airplanes as a child. The functional curved aeroform shape touched something in me. The way the gentle camber of an airfoil gave the invisible wind a handle by which to pluck a 50-ton airplane into the sky -- that was magical.

Streamlining was a childlike symbol of the old modern world. I suppose we've put it away with the other things of childhood. But I still sneak a look back at tail-fins and teardrops -- at that now-vanished vision of motion, speed, and buoyancy.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


More on the streamlining movement can be found in an exhibit review: Hyde, C.K., "Streamlining America," An Exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan," Technology and Culture, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1988, pp. 125-129, or in the exhibit itself.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 96.



From an expensive Cadillac mailout brochure, with permission of Bill Howell

The 1959 Cadillac Eldarado Seville


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.