Blue Sky Metropolis

Yakir Aharonov

Today’s post is going up a little later than usual because we spent part of today listening to Yakir Aharonov, our colleague at Chapman University, explain quantum mechanics and Alice in Wonderland. We’ll get back to Aharonov and the Aharonov-Bohm effect at some point at Lofty Ambitions.

Time is running out, though, on the Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition at the Huntington Library, so we wanted to share our recent viewing of that while there’s time for area residents and visitors to catch it before it closes on January 9, 2012. Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in California was one of our happy accidents. Our colleague Jana Remy invited us to present in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library on November 18, and we hung out afterward to see some of what there was to see there, including this exhibit, which is tied to a forthcoming edited essay collection by the same title.

The first international air meet was held in Dominguez Hills, California, in 1910, thus beginning California’s aerospace history. Like air shows today, it was incredibly popular, attracting 226,000 watchers during its ten-day run. During the 1920s, commercial aviation took off, and Southern California became a hub for that industry with 28 aircraft manufacturing companies in 1928.

Word War II made aviation the largest industry in the world, and Southern California remained a go-go and a region for building aircraft. As the placard script noted, “Southern California aircraft factories employed 2 million people; some individual plants had 100,000 workers each, with shifts working around the clock.”

JPL Computers (people who computed), 1940s-1950s (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Of course, by 1957, with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the industry expanded its notions and helped put an American satellite into orbit in 1958. Though it was launched from Florida, Explorer I was built at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of the International Geophysical Year (see our photo of a geodetic in a previous post HERE). Of course, the recently retired space shuttle orbiters were born and took their first, albeit tentative, steps in Southern California (see the shuttle’s first flight video below).

The boom-and-bust cycle of space exploration and Cold War defense programs kept the California aerospace industry a dynamic, ever-changing part of the regional economy. Now, California’s aerospace industry is expanding into commercial space exploration.

Blue Sky Metropolis covers this aerospace history with a roomful of selected artifacts, including many photos, letters, and memos. In fact, though it’s no surprise at a library, this exhibit is one of the more text-heavy displays we’ve seen in our travels to archives and museums. That makes sense, of course, because these letters and memos articulated the decision-making throughout the growth of the industry.

Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson, who grew up in Ishpeming, Michigan, where Anna’s grandfather was raised, is featured prominently. A course notebook from his Aeronautics course at the University of Michigan in 1931 documents an assignment to analyze a “performance problem” by calculating characteristics from an aircraft blueprint. He writes, “In general, the performance of this plane is good. The Clark Y wing is a speed wing, and the speed for this plane at sea level is probably from 120-125 m/p/h. All computations in this report are given at 5000 foot altitude and with empty tanks.” While still at the University of Michigan, Johnson performed wind tunnel tests on Lockheed’s Model 10 Electra. (See our Lofty post about the Electra Junior HERE.) Those early assignments led Kelly Johnson to a four-decade career in the aerospace industry, in which he contributed to the design of aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, the family of Constellations, the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, and the U-2 spy plane.

Also featured in the exhibit is Willis Hawkins, another engineer educated at the University of Michigan whose career at Lockheed spanned decades. Some of his more philosophical writings are included. He writes, “One group of men can be blamed however, if there is cause for blame, and that group goes by the name of engineers. An engineer is fundamentally a mechanic whose dexterity with the tools of physics has made it possible for him to create inanimate machines which propelled by some form of thinking pilot can produce material miracles of transportation or creation.”

A memo from D.A. Shields about “a satellite and space exploration program” asserts, “The feasibility of the proposed program is probably the most exciting part of the entire idea.” That’s dated 29 September 1959. Less than three years later, President John F. Kennedy thought going to the Moon was indeed feasible.

H-4 in (Only) Flight

The tidbits mount up and are worth seeing: a wall-sized blueprint of the Spruce Goose HK-1 from 1944 (read Spruce Goose curator’s guest post HERE and our original HK-1 post HERE), a photo of Kelly Johnson and Amelia Earhart working together in ta Lockheed hangar during the 1930s, a letter from Willis Hawkins in 1992 replying to a middle-school student who asks how something can fly, and a one-way ticket for Transcontinental Air Transport dated October 19, 1929 (a year later, TAT would be bankrupt).

Blue Sky Metropolis is worth a flyby! And of course, there’s lots more at the Huntington Library, including the Beautiful Science exhibit in the same building.

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