Rethinking Rocket Science

Front cover of the book Making Jet Engines in World War II
Front cover of the book Making Jet Engines in World War II
Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States
Hermione Giffard
University of Chicago Press
336pp £31.50

The history of science and technology is often told as the story of firsts. The received wisdom about the history of the jet engine in the Second World War is no different. Nazi Germany was the first country in the world to test-fly aircraft with jet engines and it was the first to deploy them in quantity. Historians have assumed, therefore, that this record of firsts confirmed the technological superiority of the Nazi regime. While squadrons of ultra-sleek Luftwaffe Me 262 jet fighters preyed upon lumbering Allied heavy bombers over Germany from 1944, the Royal Air Force struggled to put a few jet-propelled Gloster Meteors into the air and the US Air Force did not even deploy jet aircraft until after 1945.

In this brilliant study of the early history of jet engines, Hermione Giffard demolishes this myth of German aeronautical triumph and transforms the way we should think about technological change in general. While conventional histories of technology focus on the inventor-hero struggling to fulfil a vision in a corporate laboratory, Giffard turns her attention to the larger institutional-industrial context. In telling the story of the jet through the biographies of their early champions, such as Frank Whittle in Britain or Hans von Ohain in Germany, Sshe demonstrates how this emphasis on personalities obscures the crucial part played by thousands of individuals working in innovative businesses.

The invention of turbojets did not spawn new industries. Instead, established piston-engine companies took on the challenge of making them. It was the existing skills, creativity and development expertise of whole national aero-engine industries that shaped the divergent paths that different nations took in the production of these highly complex machines.

What Giffard’s beautifully crafted study reveals is that the race for jet aircraft was not much of a race at all. Germany’s decision to build jet aircraft was born of the failure of its aero-engine industry to make piston motors that were the equal of those of the British and the Americans. While formations of allied heavy bombers reduced German industry to rubble, the turbojet proved to be easier to make in dispersed factories with slave labour and from less material than piston engines. Britain was, in fact, the first country to decide to make turbojets and ended the war with several high-quality designs. The US took the shortcut of adopting British models to build up its production capacity with the goal of dominating postwar aviation markets. Neither country was in a hurry to mass produce jet aircraft because they could win the war without them. For Germany, however, the headlong dash to make jet aircraft and other Nazi ‘wonder weapons’ was one of the final, desperate acts of a dysfunctional, totalitarian regime to rescue itself from inevitable destruction.

Joseph A. Maiolo is Professor of International History at King’s College London.

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