Histories and Historical Ethnographies of Technical Practice: Creating Jet Propulsion in the US and France

Philip Scranton, Rutgers University & Hagley Museum and Library

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 3:00pm

American Philosophical Society, Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street

Join scholars from the area at the Regional Colloquium in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine to to discuss Philip Scranton's comparative study of jet engine development in the U.S. and France. Commentary by Stuart W. Leslie.

Discussion, 4:00 - 5:30 p.m.
followed by social hour and light dinner

American Philosophical Society
Benjamin Franklin Hall
427 Chestnut Street

Please note special day. Please download and read the paper in advance. Philip Scranton is University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University, and he is Director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum & Library. Stuart W. Leslie is professor at the Department of History of Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. Abstract:For about six years Philip Scranton has been working on reconstructing the technical and organizational dynamics that underlay the development of a literally propulsive innovation--the jet engine, which commenced as a military device and within a decade began to reshape first civilian aviation, then global migration (of both people and microbes). The standard storylines are narratives of technical progress, based on upbeat newspaper and magazine stories and a handful of memoirs. Yet this framework was the result of retrospective rationalization of a nearly-chaotic and profoundly non-linear process, which was also secret, as it represented one element of emergent Cold War initiatives (which the US hardened into "weapons systems"). Jet engines proved an extravagantly-difficult technology, for though they resembled structurally the steam turbines which powered factories and electrical plants, they had to be light enough for liftoff and sustained flight, reliable under a range of stresses not found on the ground, and durable despite intense heat, vibrations, and turbine speeds of 10,000 rpm. The US course to operable jet propulsion involved repeated failures, vast expense, and, crucial to this project, virtually perpetual redesign, retrofitting, contract revisions, and at times explosive conflicts between the military and corporate contractors (and their subcontractors). France, by contrast, acquired Nazi engine designs and an "équipe" of 160 engineers and technicians from BMW, but had neither the funds nor the resources to experiment on a grand scale as were US developers. Yet both were richly messy projects, in which intense engineering innovations and rapid shop-floor revision of an unstable technology took place in the absence of anything like adequate scientific understandings of metallurgy, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, combustion, and stress failures in materials. Hence, here the significance of reconstructing technical practice is especially salient, for this entire exercise in innovation inverted the often-cited linear sequence in which scientific understandings are applied to technical problems and yield progress. Having completed the bulk of his research on the American trajectory, ca. 1943-65, he turned to researching the French attack on jet propulsion puzzles. In winter and spring 2005-06, he spent eight weeks at the Archives de l'Armée de l'Air in Paris, with the goal of reconstituting technical practice in a nation politically and financially at a polar opposite to the US, yet with a strong tradition of technical excellence and innovation. The paper for PACHS will draw on both sets of records and will contrast US and French technical and organizational practice for jet engine building. Its relevance to ethnography arises because these labor-intensive initiatives were stunningly complex, and because the actors had no choice but to work on a sustained trial and error basis. It thus becomes valuable to use technical documents to help reconstruct actors' situations, dispositions and efforts looking forward in the 1940s and 1950s facing a Cold War (which they couldn't know was actually going to be Cold) and technological challenges with layers of unknowns, including unknown unknowns (at time T1) which exploded into sudden significance (at time T2). Second, unlike a current-day ethnography, this research proceeds through exploring historical sources, which suggests a useful question: what can the form and content of documents (including technical reports, engineering change orders, drawings, et al.) tell us about how actors conceptualized the efforts and the problem sets that had to be addressed in moving across error-filled innovation spaces. Thus the paper will compare and contrast innovation strategies, along with the values and structures informing them.