In September 2011, ICOHTEC invited young scholars to submit their books for its annual book prize for 2012. The prize committee, consisting of Robert Belot, Thomas Zeller and Dick van Lente, received and reviewed 24 works, most of them doctoral theses defended or published in 2010 and 2011. The committee selected for the prize Hermione Giffard’s dissertation, The development and production of turbojet aero-engines in Britain, Germany and the United States, 1936-1945, defended at Imperial College, University of London, in 2011 (not yet published).
Below, I will give a brief account of Giffard’s book.
The book analyses the early development of the turbojet aero-engine in Britain, the US and Germany, 1936-1945, and through this comparative case study criticizes dominant methods of understanding technological change in the mid-twentieth century. This in turn leads to a proposal for a more adequate approach. The book can be read as a thorough revision of the presently most influential version of the turbojet’s history, Edward Constant’s The origins of the turbojet revolution (1980), which was also intended as a contribution to the theory of technological change.
Constant applied Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions to the realm of technology, claiming that there was a ‘turbojet revolution’, in which the piston-propeller motor was replaced by the jet engine. Responsible for this revolution were young ‘outsiders’, who saw recognized that the propeller technology was approaching its limits. This insight was based on their knowledge of the most recent developments of the science of aerodynamics. As the technological limits of the existing technology became more apparent, these individuals could push through the new one. Giffard offers two main objections to this account. First, she argues that Constant over-estimates the importance of science and of individual inventors. The development of the new engine was a more distributed phenomenon, contributions to which were made not only by theoretically oriented engineers, but even more prominently by people working in the aircraft engine industry. Innovation occurred not only in the design phase, but also during further development and production. The innovators were not a band of young revolutionaries, but technicians young and old, newcomers as well as experienced people. Giffard’s interpretation is the result of shifting the focus of research from the invention phase to the development and production phases of the new technology. Second, continuity is as important as discontinuity, and ‘revolution’ is certainly a misnomer. Jet engines were mainly developed by firms that made piston engines, and the expertise used was based on knowledge of materials and parts used in the older motors; institutions especially devoted to invention rather than production were less important: it was ‘largely a story of an industry developing old expertise in a new task’. These criticisms have a much wider importance than the historiography of the jet engine. Giffard argues that many studies of innovation in the twentieth century are determined by narratives that either emphasize individual genius or the pivotal role of the research lab in industry. The turbojet story shows that innovations were produced by many people in a range of institutional settings. Analysis should proceed by looking closely at the way innovative activity was fostered in all these institutional settings, from the first inventions, via development, through production.
The book also revises the story of the jet engine at a more factual level. For example, Giffard shows that the British government did not neglect turbojet development, as has usually been claimed, but strongly supported it, resulting in the technically most advanced jet engines at the end of the war. The Germans, who were the first to produce jet fighters in quantity, did so with inferior technology and out of necessity, because these machines were cheaper and simpler to produce (with slave labor) – a vital consideration for the exhausted German economy. The German jet-plane was ‘not a cutting-edge, game-changing weapon, but an ersatz piston engine.’ This too is a new insight. In all, Giffard offers a new explanation of technological change in an important branch of industry, as well as a new way to approach innovation as a historical process.
Dick van Lente
Prize Committee Chair for 2012