Winged gospels

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I've been reading Joseph Corn's The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, a classic study of airminded culture in the United States -- which was very different to that in Britain. The "winged gospel" is the term used by Corn to describe an intense complex of hopes and expectations associated with the coming of flight:

Faith in that mission, in flight as a veritable religious cause, energized not only fliers but also millions of other Americans during the first half of this century. Airminded men and women embraced what was often called the "gospel of aviation" or the "winged gospel." Like the Christian gospels, the gospel of aviation held out a glorious promise, that of a great new day in human affairs once airplanes brought about a true air age. Lindbergh offered one version of this gospel, prophesying a future in which air travel would be commonplace and large transport planes shuttle from city to city, unhampered by the weather. Other enthusiasts voiced even grander prophecies, looking to aircraft as a means of achieving perfection on earth or even immortality, promises usually identified with more traditional religion.1

Corn offers many examples of this faith, some of it verging on the ludicrous -- such as the expectant mother who rushed to a nearby airfield so that her child could be air-born, or the doctor who claimed that pilots must be descended from birds, whereas the rest of humanity hailed from the unfortunately non-aerial fish lineage (!). Only somewhat less quixotic were the predictions that flying would erase gender or racial discrimination, or the idea that every American family would one day own their own airplane, freeing them from the need to huddle in densely-populated cities.

Corn notes that the gospel seems to have been solely an American phenomenon.

The English, for example, did not imagine the airplane as creating utopia, quite to the contrary. They took a far more realistic view of what flight would accomplish. Indeed, in that country anxiety rather than anticipation characterized most public reaction to the dawn of flying. As early as 1908, the year before Frenchman Louis Bleriot first piloted a plane across the English Channel and threw into doubt England's insular security, London papers were already talking about possible aerial invasions.2

Though I'm not really used to thinking of the British attitude to aviation as 'realistic', given the prevalent and often greatly exaggerated fear of bombing in this period, as a broad generalisation this is undoubtedly correct when compared with the American gospel of flight. It's true that the nature of my research interests skews my primary sources towards the more violent aspects of flying, but I do look out for anything aviation-related. Certainly there were books and articles looking forward to the prospect of civil aviation, and Britons enthusiastically followed the exploits of their own aerial pioneers like Claude Grahame-White, Amy Johnson and Alan Cobham, but I've only seen a very small number which hint at anything like a British version of the gospel of flight. And even those tend to be the exceptions which prove the rule. For example, here's the philosopher Olaf Stapledon, in his great future history Last and First Men (1930), describing the very airminded culture of the first World State, where flying is the dominant activity, often with ritual significance:

In the life of every individual, flying played a great part. Immediately after birth he was taken up by a priestess of flight and dropped, clinging to a parachute, to be deftly caught upon the wings of his father's plane. This ritual served as a substitute for contraception (forbidden as an interference with the divine energy); for since in many infants the old simian grasping-instinct was atrophied, a large proportion of the new-born let go and were smashed upon the paternal wings. At adolescence the individual (male or female) took charge of a plane for the first time, and his life was subsequently punctuated by severe aeronautical tests. From middle age onwards, namely as a centenarian, when he could no longer hope to rise in the hierarchy of active flight, he continued to fly daily for practical purposes.3

So this does sound very gospel-ish. But I think it's telling that this passage appears in a chapter entitled 'An Americanized planet', which describes a future globalised culture dominated by the US. Stapledon isn't extrapolating here from trends in his own society, but from America's.

A more significant point of contact between the two cultures was the idea that aircraft would end war. This had adherents in both countries. Major G. O. Squier4 of the US Army's Aeronautical Board suggested in 1908 that

the men who provoked wars have been pretty sure in the knowledge that their own skins were safe, and that others would have to do the fighting, now they will be in the thick of it and inclined to think twice before launching a war.5

A contemporary British example of this was by Gertrude Bacon (`among the first woman British subjects to ascend in an aeroplane', according to her 1937 Who's Who entry):

The aeroplane has added a new horror to warfare, but by so doing has advanced the world another step towards the millennium of universal peace.6

In later decades, others would express similar hopes, which perhaps reached its ultimate form in the concept of the international air force in the 1930s, as advocated in Britain by Lord Davies, L. E. O. Charlton, and others. But this was actually quite in keeping with the generally pessimistic British view of aircraft as bringers of death and destruction. It's just that they were seen to be (potentially) so incredibly destructive as to make war unthinkable (itself a pretty common reaction to new weapons). Still, it's also the same basic idea of Squier and his compatriots. Maybe it's at this point that the optimism/pessimism dichotomy breaks down and ceases to be useful. But I do think it's basically correct, and in a follow-up post I'll look at some unusual comparative evidence which demonstrates this quite well.

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  1. Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 26-7. []
  2. Ibid., 44. []
  3. Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (London: Millennium, 1999 [1930]), 66. []
  4. Corn actually has "Squire", but I'm sure this must be a typo. Squier was a clever and inventive engineer in the Signal Corps, specialising in radio and cable transmissions; one of the first people ever to fly in an aeroplane as a passenger; and later, the inventor of Muzak! []
  5. Quoted in Corn, The Winged Gospel, 37. []
  6. Gertrude Bacon, "The wonders of flying", Pearson's Magazine, 27 (November 1909), 472. []

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