Today, a case history of technological change. 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.
My father told me that the
Nieuport 17 was the apple of his eye. He
flew all kinds of planes during the last year of
WW-I -- Curtiss Jennies, Sopwith Camels, SPADs.
Good thing he didn't get into combat; those pretty
Nieuports had long since been outclassed by the Red
Baron's Fokker Triplane and the Fokker D-VII.
The story of WW-I fighters says a lot about the
rhythm of technological change. The struggle for
air superiority over the trenches hardly differed
from today's struggle among competing information
systems. It had a similar speed and intensity. It
reflected the same alternation between complacency
Early in the war, Fokker emerged from a gaggle of
competitors with his single-winged
Eindecker. It flew just over eighty miles an
hour, and it could do some pretty fancy aerobatics.
Then, in 1915, Fokker figured out how to mount a
machine gun in front of the pilot, firing between the propeller
France answered with a biplane, the Nieuport
10. It performed well, but the machine gun, mounted
on the upper wing, had to fire over the propeller.
It was hard to aim. And just imagine the
flier's having to stand in his cockpit when
it jammed and needed fixing. By early 1915, many
early Nieuports had been equipped with synchronized
machine guns. The Nieuport 17 appeared a year
later, and, for a while, it seemed to have leveled
the playing field. But Fokker wasn't done yet. Now
he built an airplane with not one wing, but
In fact, he was copying an earlier Sopwith
triplane. The reason for extra wings wasn't to add
lift but to gain the structural solidity of wings
braced against one another. Fokker's triplane had
much shorter wings than either the old Eindecker or
even the early Nieuports. By 1917 it was doing such
damage to the Allies that the French, in
desperation, tried to build a three-winged version
of the Nieuport 17. But it took the arrival of
another biplane, the highly maneuverable Sopwith Camel, to level the
playing field once more.
Three formidable entrants appeared in the last
months of the war: the Fokker D-VII, the Nieuport
28, and the SPAD. Now the formula was worked out,
and all three were similar -- 120-mile-an-hour
biplanes, with wingspans a little under thirty
It'd taken four years of tinkering and thousands of
deaths to settle on that design. The path was
littered with far more added and removed parts than
any airplane buff can list. Every field mechanic
became part airplane designer. But the early design
that may've come closest to the final form was that
neat Nieuport 17, the airplane my father never had
to ride into combat. Like the last WW-I airplanes,
it had two equal wings and clean, simple lines.
Any design ferment is like that. Watch as your
computers, telephones, and TVs form, diverge, and
evolve. The last one standing is alsways a variant
on one of the many mutations that appeared early in
the game. Too bad we can never know which one it
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.,
See this Wikipedia page on the Nieuport 17.
Postcard from Lt. J. H. Lienhard to his mother,
The airplane with the English markings is an
artist's conception of what is most likely a
A Nieuport whose exact model is not identified
From Notes on Identification of Aeroplanes,
Signal Corps, 1917
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.