Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Comparing Eras of Innovation: 1950's Aerospace Advances and Today's Web 2.0

Comparing Eras of Innovation: 1950's Aerospace Advances and Today's Web 2.0

By Dennis D. McDonald

I’m not someone who believes you can manage innovation. I believe you can create conditions that don’t discourage innovation and creativity. I also think that managing creative people can be different from managing other types of employees. But managing innovation? That’s a pretty complex undertaking that has to take into account a lot of conditions for which no single control point exists.

These 1950's era jets still look fast.

That said, we are now in the midst of a very innovative period of social and technological change that is being partly driven by the increasing availability of web based tools that support the development of relationships, the sharing of information and experiences of all kinds, and the manipulation of information on a scale that was difficult to contemplate just a few years ago. The experiences we have online are taking on increasingly important roles in terms of individual emotions, financial consequences, and personal relationships.

There have been other periods of intense social and technological innovation. One of my favorite ones for study is the post Word War II aerospace industry. The speed with which advances occurred in many fields was phenomenal:

  • Advances in jet engines.
  • Increasingly exotic high speed experimental jet and rocket powered aircraft.
  • Solving the challenges of transonic flight.
  • Increasingly sophisticated electronic guidance and control systems.
  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles and artificial satellites.
  • Advances in materials sciences and manufacturing techniques.

Interestingly, this was also the period when Rock ‘n Roll was invented — I’ll leave a discussion of that to another post!

Each of these areas represents a myriad of innovations that continue to resonate into the 21st Century, and it is interesting to consider the conditions that surrounded innovation in just a few of these key areas.

Jet engines, for example, were developed both in England and in Germany before WW II.  But both Axis and Allies went to war with aircraft designed in the 1930’s whose performance depended on increasingly sophisticated tweaking of propeller-driving engines that could be easily mass produced and were much more fuel efficient than the jets of the day.

But by the end of WW II the demise of the propeller driven aircraft (at least for military use) was clear. Jets were the wave of the future. Both the East and West were eager to plunder and take advantage of captured German jet and rocket technology. (Thankfully, Germany’s innovative WW II aerospace industry was profoundly hobbled by a lack of materials, fuel, and manufacturing resources, and by Hitler’s stupid decision to convert the ME-262 into a bomber.)

Following WW II jet technology advanced at an astonishing rate. To see what I mean, do a Google search on topics such as “Edwards Air Force Base,” “Dryden,” and “X Planes.” The advances in thrust-to-weight ratios for jet engines in the late 1940’s and 1950’s was simply phenomenal. Aircraft range, performance, speed, and effectiveness increased by leaps and bounds.

This was true in many countries, especially in the U.S., the Soviet Union, England, and France. But the U.S. was not as hobbled by wartime destruction the way other countries were, and the astonishing variety of shapes and sizes that flew out of Edwards Air Force Base at that time was evidence of the creativity and productivity of U.S. industry.

This innovative productivity in aircraft was also evidence of a Cold War mentality and a willingness of the U.S. to spend vast sums of money on tools and machines to defeat Communism. The Soviets, their country blasted by the Great Patriotic War, reacted in the similar way by pumping vast sums of money and manpower into planes and missiles.

U.S. aerospace innovation was greatly spurred by the Government’s steady upward ratcheting of requirements for speed, capability, and performance based on rapidly evolving mission requirements. If there was a threat from Russian long range bombers, for example, requirements were issued for interceptor aircraft with the ability to home in on high flying bombers and launch air to air missiles. This stimulated the development of aircraft climbing ability, radar, electronic computation of missile trajectories, aircraft wing shape, solid fuel rocket technology, early warning systems to detect incoming bombers in time to scramble interceptors, and so on. The number and variety of impacted industries and the demand for engineers rippled throughout the economy and educational institutions. (It was also during this period that modern “systems management” concepts took hold, given the dizzying rise in complexity and inter-relatedness of projects such as the B-58 “Hustler” supersonic nuclear long range attack bomber.)

Simultaneously this Cold War initiated innovation rippled through the civilian economy as well. One of the mostpublic examples was the simultaneous development of civilian airline demand for passenger aircraft, led in the U.S. by Boeing and its 707, derived from a design also under development for a long range tanker that could keep up with the Strategic Air Command’s B-47 and B-52 jet bombers.

There is certainly no “Cold War” today driving innovation in Internet and Web 2.0 technologies. Instead what we see is cutthroat commercial competition as all industries wrestle with development of both traditional and innovative use of online tools for everything from advertising to customer service. But we also see something very different from what we’ve seen before; some segments of society are rapidly adopting web based technologies that extend their ability to develop and maintain relationships and special “communities” in both traditional and novel manners. In the process traditional organizational and societal boundaries are being ignored. This gives pause to some corporate users concerned about how to control communication and message in a world where the customer can share information about a company’s products and services instantly.

There is one area, though, where the government-stimulated innovation does have some similarity to the dynamics of the 1950’s and the aerospace industry: national security. Word is gradually being leaked out by traditional and new media about how the US Government is using Internet and telecommunications technologies to track messaging and transactions to and from suspected terrorists. Some of these examples are based on access to existing telephone and Google records. I am guessing that the US Government also has its own “skunk works” for tools and techniques that are separate from the use of the public systems we are learning about in the news.

Whether or not you agree with what is being done, we may very well be seeing a government stimulated base of innovations that, like the nuclear and weapons technologies developed following WW II, are being developed and used in a top secret environment. Whether or not such developments make their way back into the public economy is hard to tell. It is tempting to imagine what might be available; but I won’t try to do that here!

For some more historical speculation, see Web 2.0 and the Manhattan Project  where I imagine how J. Robert Oppenheimer might have used social media and collaborative technologies. To see other posts related to “innovation,” click here, or use the links listed below.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Dennis D. McDonald

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