The Role of War as a Meta-Trend
Case Aims: To illustrate how war can act as a catalyst for accelerating technological innovation
In terms of the adverse impact on entire populations possibly the most tragic of all meta-trends is war. However, during wars governments are prepared both to significantly increase funding to develop new weapons and to fund developments to counter the impact of such weapons. When wars are brought to an end government funding tends to be reduced, leading to a major decline in technological research (Foley 2014).
One example of this scenario is provided by the evolution of aircraft technology in the twentieth century. Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers, inventors and aviation pioneers who are credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on 17 December 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1904-1905 the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practi(continued)
cal fixed-wing aircraft. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
The crudeness of the initial technology and the limited potential applications for these airplanes meant there were no commercial investors willing to fund development; the military, who tend to be extremely conservative, saw no potential for the new technology. Attitudes were rapidly changed by the onset of World War I when it became apparent that aircraft provided a much more effective way of undertaking reconnaissance than reliance upon cavalry units. At the outset of war aircraft were crude, unreliable and slow. Recognition of the need for technological improvements led governments to fund development of new designs. This was followed by development of new generations of fighter aircraft and by the end of the war, multi-engined bombers such as the German Gotha.
The armistice in 1918 was followed by governments severely reducing expenditure on developing new weapons systems; advances in aircraft technology virtually ceased because there were few indications that existing airplane designs would permit the creation of commercially viable, civilian passenger-carrying operations. Aircraft designers were aware that the prevailing design for biplane aircraft, which used frames, typically of wood or steel tubing and covered with fabric, had limited structural strength and limited maximum achievable airspeed. The accepted solution was to move to single-wing aircraft using a metal monocoque design. In the 1920s, developing new aircraft based upon such technology was severely limited due to lack of funding (Margolin 2013).
However two events changed this situation. One was the Schneider Trophy, created in 1912 by Jacques Schneider, a French financier, balloonist and aircraft enthusiast. This was a competition offering a prize of approximately ?1000 for the fastest seaplane. The race was held twelve times between 1913 and 1931. It was intended to encourage technical advances in civil aviation, but became a contest for pure speed. The race was significant in advancing aircraft design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design. The achieved advantages would later be reflected in the design of World War II fighters. The streamlined shape and the low-drag, liquid-cooled engines pioneered by Schneider Trophy designs are apparent in the British Supermarine Spitfire and the American North American Mustang. In 1927 at Venice there was a strong British entry with government backing and RAF pilots. Supermarine's Mitchell-designed S.5s took first and second places. The last annual competition was in 1927, after which the event moved onto a biennial schedule to allow more development time. Further developments by British manufacturers were halted when the British government withdrew funding. However a private donation of ?100,000 allowed Supermarine to compete and win in 1931. The
following day saw the winning Supermarine S.6B further break the world speed record twice, making it the first craft to break the 400 mph barrier. With growing evidence of Germany's re-armament activities including the development of fast fighters and bombers, in the mid-1930s the UK government again began to fund the development of the next generation of military aircraft (Scranton 2011).
The other catalyst for change in the late 1920s was the recognition of the opportunity for faster transcontinental travel in the USA which led to the creation of two airlines, TWA and United Airlines. Both companies recognised the need for improved passenger aircraft design and funded development projects by aircraft manufacturers such as Douglas and Boeing. Additionally the US government increased military spending which led to the development of aircraft such as the Boeing B-17.
Government spending during World War II, as in World War I, accelerated the acquisition of new technologies that would influence the post-war expansion of the civilian aircraft industry. Examples of exploitation of new knowledge were the development of faster multi-engined turbo-prop aircraft such as the British Vickers Viscount and the first generation of passenger jets such as the Boeing 707.