Airmindedness: a reading list

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Earlier this summer, I read several studies of national airmindedness, which inspired two previous posts. By way of a coda, here's a reading list on airmindedness, comprising these works and others I am aware of, along with some scattered thoughts as to what it all means.

There are plenty of important gaps, at least in English: in particular, French and Italian airmindedness would certainly repay close study. Non-Western airmindednesses, too, perhaps? Similarly, there isn't much in a comparative or global vein, but I do know of the following:

  • Bernhard Rieger. Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Robert Wohl. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Robert Wohl. The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

So, what is this "airmindedness" thing that I keep bandying about? In contemporary usage, it referred to the abstract state of being airminded, that is, enthusiastic about flight. Scott Palmer (who blogs at The Avia-Corner) defines it slightly differently:

I have chosen to employ "air-mindedness" in reference to the particular set of cultural traditions, symbols, and markers that, combined with existing political culture and social institutions, constitute a given nation's response to the airplane [...] Although Americans, Britons, Germans, and French may all be said to have been enthusiastic about aviation (or, air-minded), the specific manifestations of that enthusiasm (air-mindedness) were the products of those nations' unique historical and cultural traditions.1

I like this definition, because it highlights the connections between aviation and the larger narratives of a nation's history. The works cited above demonstrate these connections. In Russia, aviation continued a pattern (going back to Peter the Great) of trying to compensate for perceived inferiority in comparison with the West by jump-starting entire industries and exaggerating successes, which anyway were often more symbolic than useful. In Germany, widespread enthusiasm for Zeppelins served as a unifying symbol for a nation only a generation old, while in the Weimar period the new sport of gliding became a way of expressing hostility to the Versailles treaty. In the United States, an enormous faith in technology (combined with the more traditional kind of religious faith) led to hopes for an airborne millennium, with an aeroplane in every family's garage. In Australia, like Germany a new nation, the motivation was more practical: the need to bind together cities and towns separated by hundreds of miles of trackless bush and desert, as well as to shorten the effective distance to the mother country. In Britain, the primary concern was how to defend the integrity of the nation against the power of the bomber, but by the same token, there also appeared to be possibilities for holding the Empire together by use of airpower, military and commercial.

Leigh Edmonds (talking about the Australian context, but it applies more generally) suggests that the word "airmindedness" fell into disuse after the 1930s, because people were now 'so airminded that to use the word would have been as useless as referring to all people as bipeds'.2 There's something in that: flying is now taken for granted and air travel democratised. Most members of affluent societies, and affluent members of poorer ones, can choose to fly, and usually do, for long distances. But it seems to me that it's not that everyone is now airminded, rather it's that airmindedness itself is superfluous, because aviation's potential has largely been realised. Faith and imagination (a word which appears in the title of four of the books listed above) are no longer required to see the benefits of flight: just go to any international airport and watch all the people come and go. There's no need for aerial evangelism anymore, and so airmindedness is now more personal than public, a hobby or a job rather than a vocation.3 But as I hope I've at least hinted at here, the study of historical airmindedness is much more than an exercise in mere nostalgia: it's a way to explore a nation's hopes and fears.

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  1. Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air, 2-3. []
  2. Edmonds, "How Australians were made airminded." []
  3. Of course, this is a common fate for new technologies, from railways to telephones to (probably, one day) the Internet. []

17 thoughts on “Airmindedness: a reading list

  1. I really appreciate this list, especially mention of the Fritzsche title, which I hadn't heard of before. It occurs to me as well, reading this excellent post, that there is a further kind of 'airmindedness.' It would apply to people like me who are enthralled with early aviation yet find today's version a pale shadow of its former self. The years when changes and improvements were fast-paced, records were broken routinely, fascinating new designs emerged and were superseded, all of this absorbs me today. I suppose I am airminded for the old days, but not our own!

  2. Chris Williams

    ISTR that there was an article in Technology and Culture about 20 years ago, dealing with airmindedness in the USSR. Probably.

  3. Post author


    Yes, I think that's an interesting inversion of the original airmindedness: essentially looking backwards instead of forwards, nostalgic rather than progressive. Retro-futuristic. Probably a large percentage of Airminded's readers could be described in this way -- not that there's anything wrong with that!

    As an aside, I think a similar sort of analysis could be applied to spaceflight, but more complicated because of the longer timescales and multiple physical scales involved. So, near-Earth spaceflight is becoming routinised -- we're seeing the birth of space tourism for the very rich, the equivalent of, say, the early 1930s in aviation terms. But beyond that, interplanetary travel, is only done by unmanned craft; and beyond that, your own specialty, interstellar travel, is not done at all (aside from the Pioneers and Voyagers) -- still at the pre-Kitty Hawk stage. Will space-minded nostalgics one day lament the end of the pioneer age of space travel as they ride their fusion torches to Tau Ceti?


    Thanks -- Scott would no doubt know the one you mean, if he's reading this, but I notice that he himself had an article on Soviet airmindedness in the same journal in 2000: Scott W. Palmer, "Peasants into pilots: Soviet air-mindedness as an ideology of dominance", Technology and Culture 41 (2000): 1-26. Much of which appears to be in Dictatorship of the Air, anyway, which I thoroughly recommend!

    I should have said in the post that I am (obviously) severely compressing and perhaps distorting the arguments of the books I've cited, so you should all go out and read them yourselves.

  4. Greetings All,

    First, many thanks to Brett for his kind words about Dictatorship of the Air. I was delighted to learn that he enjoyed the book and thought it useful.

    I believe that the essay Chris Williams has in mind is James R. Hansen, "Aviation History in the Wider View," Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1989): 643-656. Although the essay doesn't address "airmindedness" directly, it was very much written with the concept in mind. As I noted in a blog entry here, Hansen called upon aviation historians to move away from the antiquarian focus on machines and personalities that had long dominated (and marginalized) the field and move toward the kind of research that Joseph Corn had undertaken in his seminal book The Winged Gospel.

    As regards Brett's original post, FWIW I think he's correct on most every point, but especially when he mentions that there's still much to be done. Italy is an excellent example of a nation just waiting for its air-minded scholar to emerge. The same is also true as regards comparative (and non-European) studies of airmindedness.

    One addition that I'd recommend to your list is Guillaume de Syon's, Zeppelin!: Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939. True, it's not about airplanes, per se, but Guillaume has many interesting things to say regarding the interaction between aeronautical technology and the emergence of the German idea of nation.

  5. Post author

    I agree, de Syon's book is excellent -- I guess I was trying to limit the list to one book per nation. (Which unfortunately isn't too difficult in most cases!)

    Italy is an excellent example of a nation just waiting for its air-minded scholar to emerge.

    Yes, it's actually almost staggering that nobody has tackled this yet, when you think of names like D'Annunzio, Douhet, Nobile and Balbo. Mussolini himself was a pilot, or at least claimed to be, which is probably unique for world leaders at this time (though Churchill did take flying lessons before WWI). As I understand it, aviation was widely used in Fascist propaganda; and Italy had a substantial, and early, civil defence programme -- and it was itself the first country to use aeroplanes in war. I'd love to read a book on "Italy and the aeroplane", if only somebody would write it!

  6. CK

    Thanks for the link to the Maxim Gorky. Bigger may have looked good, but it obviously wasn't always better (especially, I suppose, when you have other people crashing into you).

    Off topic I know, but it's interesting to compare the MG to the Boeing XB-15 produced at around the same time. Both prototypes crashed, but the XB-15 was used as the basis for the B-17, and wing design used on Pan-Am's China Clippers.

    Russia, as far as I know, never went on to produce any bombers worth the name. But in some respects they look remarkably similar:

    Just sayin'.

  7. Post author

    Shouldn't you have posted these comments at The Avia-Corner, CK?

    The wings do look very similar, with a large chord and low aspect ratio. I suppose there were common engineering problems the respective engineers had to face which led them to choose the same wing shape.

    Of course, there were two US and Soviet bomber designs whose similarities were rather more than coincidental ...

    Russia, as far as I know, never went on to produce any bombers worth the name.

    No heavy bombers, in the WWII era (with the Tu-4 being a dishonourable exception). But earlier, there was the pioneering Ilya Muromets, and of course in the Cold War they had some fearsome heavy bombers. In terms of tactical bombers, in WWII they eventually developed some very capable aircraft like the Il-2 and the Pe-2.

  8. CK

    Yes, quite right Brett, I wasn't referring to post WWII. They eventually came up with a strategic bomber: The fearsome (mainly for the crews I suspect) Tu95.

  9. Post author

    LOL, well I was thinking more of the Tu-22M and Tu-160 but that will do too. The Tu-160 is apparently the heaviest combat aircraft ever, which puts it in the (as Scott shows) long tradition of Russian aeronautical gigantism. But with a speed of Mach 2, a range of 12000 km, and a bombload of 40,000kg (!), it definitely has the potential to ruin somebody's day.

  10. As regards the earlier comments on the similarities between the ANT-20 and the XB-15, I'd chalked them up more to common engineering troubles. Design-wise the "Maxim" was an enlarged version of earlier ANTs.

    However, the inspiration for constructing it came from the Germans...

    Meanwhile, the tradition of big Russian planes is alive and well.


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