Today, we beat a plowshare into a sword. 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 like to point out that the
necessities of war do little to drive invention.
But those same necessities do drive people
to make fine use of existing ideas. Look what WW-II
did with the peacetime inventions of atomic
fission, radar, and jet propulsion!
Case in point: Great Britain had two major fighter
airplanes in WW-II: The Hawker Hurricane
and the Supermarine Spitfire. The
Hurricane represented fine foresight by Thomas Sopwith. Remember Snoopy
playing a WW-I ace -- shouting, "Curse you, Red
Baron!"? Snoopy imagined his doghouse to be the
fabled Sopwith Camel.
In 1934, Sopwith, who'd become Chairman of the
board of Hawker Engineering, committed his company
to building the Hurricane. The design made good use
of the current features of civilian aircraft. It
was a monoplane with retractable landing gear and
no external guy wires. Yet much of it was still
covered with fabric
With a top speed of 340 miles an hour, the
Hurricane would soon be outclassed. Yet it was
maneuverable and well-made. By the time the smoke
cleared, it'd shot down fifteen hundred German
planes -- more than the rest of the RAF combined.
Hawker Hurricane (from a 1943
Warplane Spotter's Manual)
While the over-the-hill Hurricane was saving
England in the 1940 aerial Battle of
Britain, the Spitfire was hardly hatched. Its
maker, the Supermarine Company, had started out
making racing planes. In 1931, a Supermarine
floatplane won the international Schneider Trophy.
It also set a speed record of 407 miles an hour.
During the mid-thirties Supermarine struggled to
convert the technology of sport to that of combat.
By 1938, the seaplane floats had been replaced with
a retractable landing gear and the Supermarine had
finally morphed into the Spitfire, Mark-I.
War began with a mere handful of Spitfires and a
nightmarish array of design flaws. The fabric on
the ailerons ballooned outward at high speeds and
messed up its aerodynamics. The windscreen was hard
to open. The fuel cut off in certain combat
One by one, the flaws were repaired. The first
Mark-II Spitfire was delivered in August, 1940.
This was Britain's darkest hour, and the aging
Hurricane still bore the brunt of it.
But the war had far to go. Now the Spitfire evolved
faster and further. At the end, Supermarine was
making the Mark-XVI. In all, twenty
thousand Spitfires were made in 150 versions. Their
magnificent Merlin engine went through 28 versions,
gradually increasing from a thousand to sixteen
The Spitfire finally surpassed the speed of that
1931 Schneider Cup winner. Still carrying some
fabric covering, it became the first airplane to
down an enemy jet in combat.
So we were saved by two great airplanes -- both
forged in peace and triumphant in war, both
beautiful in flight. And both remain engraved as
surely upon our subconscious as Snoopy's Sopwith
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
(The sound of Spitfire in combat)
K. Darling, Merlin-Powered Spitfires. North
Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2002.
Some Hawker Hurricane sites:
Some Supermarine Spitfire sites:
Spitfire at the Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston,
Spitfire at the Evergreen Air Museum,
(both photos by John
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.