Corrections or additions?
This article by Edward Tenner was prepared for the July 14, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
U.S. Technology’s French Connections
A hundred years after the Wright brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, the
European consortium Airbus announced a milestone of its own –
surpassing the American aviation giant Boeing in the number of
airliners delivered in 2003. Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, is now
beating its U.S. rival at its own game of size and distance: The
555-passenger, long-range A380, bigger than any Boeing, is already in
Airbus’s success should be no surprise. America and France may be
sparring diplomatically, but technologically the two nations have had
a long love affair. Each has developed outstanding innovations, and
each has assiduously exploited the other’s ideas.
Even the current U.S. military-industrial hegemony has some decidedly
French roots. Sylvanus Thayer graduated from West Point in 1808, spent
two years in Europe, and was utterly taken with French military
thought and training. When he became superintendent in 1817, Thayer
modeled the academy’s demanding technical curriculum and ethic of
honor and service after France’s Ecole Polytechnique. Classics on
sieges and fortifications by Louis XIV’s engineering genius, Marshal
Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, were standard texts; studying French
was de rigueur.
The French connection persisted into the Civil War. The Minie bullet
that made that conflict’s rifle-muskets three times as deadly as
earlier weapons was originally developed by French officers. In 1885,
the French ordnance engineer Paul Vieille introduced smokeless powder.
French artillerymen invented the revolutionary hydropneumatic recoil
that allows cannons to remain murderously locked on target for shot
after shot. And where would the Navy SEALs be without scuba gear,
developed in 1943 on the French Riviera by Emile Gagnan and a
soon-to-be famous French officer, Jacques Cousteau?
Even interchangeable parts, the foundation of America’s mass
production, have French roots. The historian of science Ken Alder has
shown that a French gunsmith was using such a system as early as the
1720s. By the 1780s, French military officials were introducing
uniform jigs and fixtures at arms factories to enforce strict
tolerances and ensure deadlier firearms and ordnance. Thomas Jefferson
praised the system, and while it fell into disuse in France in the
19th century, U.S. armories embraced it. Related methods became known
in Europe as the American System and, in the early 20th century, as
Speaking of Ford, what could be more American than the automobile? Yet
a Frenchman built the first self-propelled vehicle, powered by steam,
more than 200 years ago. A hundred years later the French company
Panhard introduced the basic architecture that automobiles have
followed ever since. Henry Ford’s triumphs depended not just on
standardization but on use of strong, rust-resistant vanadium steel,
which had impressed him in the wreck of a French racing car.
In fact, France has had a far greater influence on our motorized
society than we realize. French luxury car builders were the first to
experiment in the 1930s with streamlined forms to reduce air
resistance. Like many other specimens of advanced industrial
technology they required countless hours of painstaking hand shaping
of graceful forms like fender curves. Only after the Second World War
did U.S. manufacturers begin to embrace aerodynamic styling.
The French had profound lessons for the U.S. highway system,
especially its high-density sector. It was the Swiss-born,
French-speaking, Paris-based architect Le Corbusier who for better or
worse was the first great theorist of the motorized city. In "The
Radiant City" and other writings, he advocated massive urban clearance
to replace congested old buildings with new business and residential
complexes set in parklike grounds and linked with six-lane highways.
It all looked tidier on paper than today’s Route 1, but developments
like Princeton Forrestal Center and Carnegie Center might be
considered heirs of his plans.
(The State of New Jersey and its municipalities could still learn a
lot from French road engineering, incidentally. French construction
and maintenance standards are among the world’s best. Potholes are
almost unknown, signs uniform, and directions clear. And the contract
bidding system encourages road builders to maintain high standards by
focusing on total costs including repairs.)
Long before Airbus, the French produced superlative aeronautical
engineers. They were the first Europeans to acclaim the Wrights’
breakthroughs in aircraft control, and they made key improvements.
French inventors, especially Louis Bleriot and Robert
Esnault-Pelterie, created the monoplane as we know it, which is why we
still speak of fuselages and ailerons. Esnault-Pelterie was also the
father of the joystick.
Even one of the newest additions to the Princeton landscape has
surprising roots in French aviation. Frank Gehry’s design for the
University’s new science library on Washington road was executed –
probably could be executed – only with a computer-assisted design
(CAD) program called Catia, originally developed by the aircraft
company Dassault in the 1980s to develop the Mirage fighter jet.
Flag-waving Americans may reply that many of France’s own
technological triumphs rely on ideas born here. French high-speed
trains lead the world today, but as the railroad historian Mark
Reutter has shown, the Budd Co. of Philadelphia was already building
lightweight, articulated streamliners in the 1930s. And France now
gets 75 percent of its electricity from America’s great hope of 50
years ago, nuclear power. Social legislation also helps make France a
showplace of other U.S. innovations: vending machines (limited
retailing hours) and mass-produced antibiotics (generous health
In fact, the French have so often jettisoned their heritage in favor
of novel technology that it sometimes takes Americans to defend it.
The Cornell University scholar (and Princeton alumnus) Steven Kaplan
has revived the art of French bread making, and Mother Noella
Marcellino, an American Benedictine nun with a Ph.D. in microbiology,
has been saving the classic cheese of France from pasteurization – a
process invented by the Frenchman Louis Pasteur.
It’s pointless to debate who owes more to whom, and far more
interesting to rejoice in cross-appropriation. Airbus has many U.S.
suppliers, and Boeing will jump ahead sooner or later in the endless
technological leapfrog. The last word may belong to the sage – perhaps
Oscar Wilde – who said, "Talents imitate; geniuses steal."
resident, is a senior research associate of the Lemelson Center for
the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution.
His latest book is Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body
Published in U.S. News & World Report, February 16, 2004.
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