Tech Futurism: The Plane Truth

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Kids who grew up in the post-Sputnik 1950s and 1960s thrilled to read about the radical expected aircraft designs of the 21st century. We're ten years into that century. Now they, their children, and grandchildren can read instead about the persistence of the designs of the 1950s and 1960s while pondering the demise of the Concorde seven years ago.

Star witness: the survival of the U-2, 55 years after its first flight. As The New York Times reports:

Because of updates in the use of its powerful sensors, it has become the most sought-after spy craft in a very different war in Afghanistan.
As it shifts from hunting for nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs, it is outshining even the unmanned drones in gathering a rich array of intelligence used to fight the Taliban.

The basis of the strategic U.S. air fleet remains the likewise updated B-52 Stratofortress bomber, also introduced in 1955. And the Boeing 747, in service since January 1970, is also going strong as a long-haul civilian aircraft.

While it's wonderful that we can still use proved designs, now safer, more effective and/or more economical to operate thanks to new materials and electronic innovations, where are the promised miracles? Even the Federation of American Scientists hasn't updated its Mystery Aircraft pages for over a decade.

Is this view of limited progress underestimating the revolutionary potential of reengineering older designs, for example the doubled fuel economy of 747?  Or have promising innovations been put on hold? I keep coming back to one of my favorite recent history of technology books, David Edgerton's Shock of the Old.

Incidentally, the pilot illustrated in the Times article is riding to his U-2 in a reclining chair of a design also popular in the U.S. in the mid-1950s, and based on German sanatorium furniture of the 1930s. I've written more about it here.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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