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Jet Engine

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The Jet Engine and the Revolution in Leisure Air Travel,

1960-1975

Peter Lyth

Air transport for European tourists got off to a shaky start in the late 1920s.

1

But it was to be thirty

years before leisure air travel was to appeal to anyone but the rich and adventurous. High cost, fear of

flying and the absence of toilets in early airliners (an unfortunate combination) were the main

deterrents; the unpressurized aircraft of the inter-war years were noisy, slow and not especially

comfortable despite the efforts of some airlines to make aircraft cabins resemble the first-class state-

rooms of an ocean liner. This changed fundamentally after 1958: with the introduction into airline

service of the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8 and the de Havilland Comet 4, aircraft were capable of

flying fast, high and with hitherto unknown smoothness. The jet age had arrived. This paper considers

this "age" and its impact on tourism in the 1960s and 1970s. It argues that while the revolution in

European leisure air travel that took place in these years was obviously the result of social and

economic change (more disposable income, a greater propensity to take foreign holidays and the entry

of new capital into the independent airline industry), there was also a critical additional factor. This

was the breakthrough in transport technology represented by the jet engine and it is on this aeronautical

artifact that the paper's main focus will lie.

I

Technological change was crucial to the process of economic and social modernisation in both the 19

th

and 20

th

centuries. New technologies of power generation, manufacturing, transport and

communications changed the world and shrunk time and space. What is generally termed "Fordism"

grew out of the mass production of automobiles to encompass a whole array of practices and

institutions that now underpin modern Western society

2

. In the wake of Fordist mass production, a

Fordist lifestyle of mass consumption set in after 1950 and this included the international tourist

industry, the single largest and fastest-growing industry in the world

3

.

The technological change that triggered and accompanied this explosion in tourist activity was the

introduction of the jet engine. Indeed the jet engine has been as vital a part of social modernisation as

mass tourism itself. The jet engine's evolution and dominance in aerospace propulsion since 1950 is

traditionally described in terms of the transfer of technology from military to civilian usage: the turbo-

jet grew out of the Second World War and the preparation for it, and was later installed in civil

transport aircraft. Certainly all the early jet engines were intended for military aircraft and, as one of the

leading researchers in the field has pointed out, the development of turbo-jets is "a striking example of

the commercialization of military technology."

4

The point to be made here, however, is that the

progression of jet engine use from military to commercial aircraft was not just a case of technological

determinism; there is also a social dimension. International tourism became a mass industry in the

1960s because it became fast - it became what one might term "speed tourism" (the qualities of which

we will return to later) - and it became fast because of jet aircraft. The theoretical background to this

proposition lies in the idea of the social construction of technology pioneered by the sociologists Wiebe

Bijker and Trevor Pinch. According to the social constructionist view, technological change is socially

determined rather than technologically inevitable, in other words, it is social rather than technological

processes that lead to a sole dominant meaning for a technical artifact. Initially a broad flexibility of

interpretation will attach itself to a piece of technology - let us say the jet engine - but eventually,

through action within the social and economic environment in which the artifact exists, a single

meaning emerges

5

. The jet engine was conceived in an entirely military setting, its purpose was ill-

________________________________________

Page 2

2

defined but seen more or less in terms of propelling fighter aircraft to higher speeds and altitudes. It

was only in the late 1940s that the first engineers began to consider the possibility of commercial

airliners being powered by jet engines and this was at a time when many scientists seriously doubted

that human passengers would be able to withstand the "strains" of travelling at speeds in excess of 500

miles

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