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No. 1587:
Early Warplanes

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 those airplanes. "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 move about.

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 carnage.

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

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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, 2000.

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., Inc., 1997.

Fokker Triplane children's toy

Iron Airplane, ca. 1918. A child's view of the Fokker Triplane