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

production.

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

Fordism.

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

benefits).

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."

Edward Tenner, a Princeton alumnus and Plainsboro

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

Technology (Knopf).

Published in U.S. News & World Report, February 16, 2004.


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