Today, we turn plowshares into swords. 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.
I was doing a program on WW-I fighter airplanes
when my wife raised the same question that'd
troubled me when I was a kid building models of
"What was their purpose? Dueling seems like a simpleton's game! Didn't Snoopy and the Red Baron have anything better to do than to kill each other?"
Generals were also dubious of the new airplanes as
the guns of August, 1914, opened fire. By then,
observation balloons were an old technology. Both
sides had them. Yet airplanes did promise to
combine that aerial platform with the ability to
But the military has always been conservative. When
French scout planes reported a German buildup
around Verdun, the generals scoffed at the idea
that airplanes could reveal what conventional
intelligence could not. France almost lost the war
at that point.
The first aerial aggression took place
immediately when German dirigibles dropped bombs on
Belgium, but dirigibles were vulnerable to
ground-fire. Airplanes soon took up the work of
bombing, but that story wasn't widely told. While
bombs devastated troops in the trenches, they made
poor press back home.
Still, the first airman to win a Victoria Cross was
a flier named Rhodes-Moorhouse. He dropped a
100-pound bomb on a railway signal box and slowed
the movement of German troops into the Ypres
sector. He brought his airplane home, but he also
carried a fatal German rifle bullet in his stomach.
Bombers played a significant role at sea as well.
They damaged and even sank some large ships.
As airplanes established their roles as scouts and
bombers, pilots looked for means of getting rid of
airplanes headed in the opposite direction. They
began dropping bags of bricks and metal darts on
each other. They tried dangling chains into enemy
propellers. They began carrying pistols. The French
were the first to mount machine guns on airplanes.
At first, the weight of a Lewis gun sorely taxed an
early airplane's load-carrying abilities. Airplane
designs had to catch up with this new purpose.
All this took place in the last few months of 1914.
It'd be over a year before the maneuverable
airplane with forward-firing guns, synchronized to
fire between propeller blades, became an icon of
the war. Its obvious purposes would be to scout
enemy positions, eliminate bombers, shoot down
observation balloons, and thwart enemy scout
planes. But the aim of eliminating one another also
emerged as a primary imperative. And so too emerged
the new image of the pilot as knight-errant. The
real Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, began
awarding himself a silver cup each time he downed
an airplane. He collected almost a hundred before
he, too, was killed.
But the real story of WW-I aerial warfare didn't
lie up with the hero in a white scarf. It lay in
the war's true domain, on the ground below. But who
wants to dwell on that? We have, ever since, turned
our eyes instead to the clean air above all the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Treadwell, T. C., and Wood, A. C., The First Air
War: A Pictorial History 1914-1919. New York:
Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.
Sharpe, M., Biplanes, Triplanes and
Seaplanes. New York: Barnes & Noble Books,
Brannon, D., (with Don Greer, Joe Sewell, and
Randle Toepfer). Fokker Eindecker in Action.
(Aircraft Number 158) Carrollton, TX:
Squadron/Signal Pubs., Inc., 1996.
Cooksley, P., (with Don Greer and Ernesto Cumpian).
Nieuport Fighters in Action. (Aircraft
Number 167). Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Pubs.,
Iron Airplane, ca. 1918. A child's view of
the Fokker Triplane
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.