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December 15, 2007

Aerial Warfare Seen from 1910

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Forecasting -- make that serious forecasting -- isn't easy. That's because, even if you get the broad sweep of things right, many details are likely to be wrong. Or maybe you nail some details and blow the big picture.

A safe (i.e., defensible) way to forecast is to extrapolate from the past. And when the forecast proves inaccurate, the forecaster can shrug his shoulders and blame history.

Things become more difficult when a major new technology enters the scene. Because it's new, there's no history to extrapolate. In this case, the forecaster has little choice but to grope around for what he hopes is an appropriate analogy.

That's what some people did at the dawn of heavier-than-air aviation when the question of aerial warfare came up. The closest analog they could think of was naval warfare.

The naval analogy made sense because early airplanes were doing well if they simply took off, climbed a few hundred feet into the air, circled around for a while and then landed safely. While airborne, they pretty much stayed in a horizontal plane; aerobatic maneuvers came a few years later when comparatively light, powerful motors allowed heavier, stronger airplanes to be built. During the Great War fighter aircraft engaged in swirling dogfights, but that was the future observers around 1910 were scratching their heads about.

Airships -- blimp-type craft and dirigible Zeppelins -- were even more constrained to a horizontal maneuver plane than aircraft.

Given the horizontal nature of flight at that time, it was easy to look at naval warfare, fought on the essentially horizontal plane of the sea, as the analog. So we have aircraft armed with shell-type guns taking pot-shots at each other.

Just for fun, here are two nicely done illustrations of future air war as seen circa 1910 by newspaper artist Henry Grant Dart. For more on Dart and his work, see here, here and here.


Air-sea battle at night, 1910

Going Into Action - 1907
Exciting stuff! The aircraft are pretty much at the same altitude and the two in the middle-ground indeed seem to be firing back and forth. Note the men standing on decks in the craft at the lower right. It looks a lot like naval destroyers of that day. The dual-mounted guns on the lower, forward deck appear to be drum-fed rapid-fire cannon of perhaps three-inch caliber.

Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells wrote a book called The War in the Air in 1907 featuring dirigibles and airplanes. I read the book back when I was in high school and don't remember much about it. The link provides a plot summary but doesn't describe the aircraft and how Wells imagined them fighting.

One hundred years later, we know how aerial warfare actually happened. This makes the early speculations seem quaint. But I'll bet that Wells' book and Dart's pictures excited a lot of boys back then; they would have excited me.



posted by Donald at December 15, 2007


"Going into Action - 1907" is one heck of a dynamic composition. It kind of blows my art-historical mind; I would have thought such a radical composition wouldn't have been possible at such an early date (when there hadn't been, to my knowledge, any actual air battles with their uniquely 3-dimensional quality for anyone to look at.) I guess it contains elements from some Baroque ceiling paintings in placing moving aerial figures against cloudy immensities of depth, but it has a spiky energy altogether different from those Baroque images. Very intriguing. (Are you sure that was from 1907?!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 15, 2007 6:05 PM

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoomian aerial navies probably derived from these and similar speculative depictions of the future of combat aviation.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 15, 2007 6:26 PM

"Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers" gives a very interesting view of the development of American technology and doctrine between the world wars. The role of analogy was very strong there too, especially with tanks which were thought of as mechanical calvary.

Posted by: Gabriel Rossman on December 16, 2007 1:07 PM

I have a copy of the Naval Annual from 1913. There are tables of data on the fleets of each naval power: on battleships, on cruisers, on destroyers, and on airships (displacement, engines/speed, armament).

Of course even short-range forecasting is difficult when new technology is erupting all over the place. I once found a book from 1942, about "the coming [air] battle of Germany"; the author predicted air fleets combining light, medium, and heavy bombers, where the light bombers would carry ten tons of bombs.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 16, 2007 8:42 PM

One of Hans Christian Andersen's stories (from about 1850!) featured aerial armadas blasting one another out of the skies.


Posted by: Narr on December 17, 2007 4:56 PM

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