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The Impact of Air Travel

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

A War Atlas for Americans. The Office of War Information. Simon and Schuster, for The Council on Books in Wartime. $2.50. Look at the World. By Richard Edes Harrison. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50. Umpire of the Air. By Matthew Joscphson. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Keep the Peace Through Air Power. By Allan A. Michie. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00.

During the last five hundred years the world has known three great eras of travel. The first resulted from the evolution of the ocean-going sailing ship—this led to the era of discovery and colonization. The second was the product of the steam engine, which gave us railways and steamships and made it possible for the ordinary individual to travel to almost any point of the globe by the simple process of buying a ticket—this led to the era of voluntary mass migration. Now a third era of travel is here, made possible by the arrival of the internal-combustion engine, which has given us the automobile and the airplane. If the automobile permits an altogether new kind of personal movement (in which a family may, in normal times, drive a hundred miles to and from town to see a movie, or a young woman may drive twice that distance to get a “permanent”), the airplane has demolished distance and has brought “the ends of the earth” within remarkably brief flying time.

Each of these three eras of travel, opening new horizons of movement, has had a great effect upon the art of map-making and the study of geography, no less an effect upon international commerce and upon international relations, Here is a group of books bearing eloquent witness of today’s innovations in maps, in commerce, in international relations—all thanks to that devourer of gasoline, the internal-combustion engine.

The maps which accompanied the arrival of the oceangoing sailing ship were not exact. There was little need for exact maps, then. Ocean navigation was a crude art and ships’ voyages were at the mercy of the winds. The “great circle” course might be the shortest distance between two points, but the quickest way across the Atlantic or the Pacific was the route that took best advantage of the trades and monsoons. Early maps were pictorial representations to the general public of the relative relations between different parts of the earth as they were known at the time.

With the coming of the steam-engine, exactness became much more important. A ship driven by steam could steer any given course, regardless of the wind. Navigation became a precise art—and map-making became equally precise. Survey parties visited remote coasts to make soundings and observations. The monumental labor of charting the earth is far from finished, even now.

For the navigating of ships, the type of chart known as “Mercator’s projection” had great advantages. All flat maps or charts are “projections” of the earth’s curving, globular surface onto a plane, something that cannot he done without one form or another of distortion. Mercator’s projection distorts the shapes of the land masses, but keeps the true relation of all compass directions. This is a great advantage in plotting the movements of ships by compass courses, and Mercator’s projections became the charts of the mariner.

Curiously enough, the mariner, though he charted his movements by compass courses, almost never made long voyages on a straight course—for a straight course is seldom the shortest distance between two distant harbors. The mariner is acutely aware that the earth is a globe—it is brought to his attention every time he sees a ship come over the horizon at sea. The shortest course around the globular earth in any other but the east-west or north-south directions, curves through a succession of changing compass courses—usually changed once or twice a day of a voyage. This “great circle” course may be seen at a glance on a globe, where there are no geographical distortions. Or it may be plotted on a gnomonic projection, which distorts the shapes of land masses even more than Mercator’s projection.

In our school-books we studied a great variety of maps, and we got a good general idea of the steam-engine relation of the world’s various parts—though the layman was usually puzzled, when he crossed the Atlantic, to discover that his steamer was “curving” away up to the Grand Banks instead of steering “straight” for England.

It has taken the arrival of the gasoline-engine and the airplane to collapse our conventional geography and map-making. Not that aerial navigation is different from nautical navigation. Airplanes, like ships, steer great circle courses, follow beacons when they are in sight of land, chart their voyages in terms of port facilities. But the “air ocean” is not limited by the continental coasts, and the quickest air routing has nothing to do with existing rail lines or surface travel facilities.

The arrival of air travel, with its revolutionary effect upon human movements, has led to the inevitable reawakening of interest in geography and cartography. Naviga-tionally, today’s maps are merely extensions and adaptations of the nautical chart. The aerial navigator, like the mariner, is concerned with mathematical exactitudes of direction and distance. It is the layman’s map that has undergone the greatest change.

Here are two “new” atlases, intended to break down the conventional distorted image of those land masses “projected” onto flat planes, and to replace them in our minds with a fresh vision of the globe—its seas, its mountains, its rivers, its coasts, the scene of the “Global War” now being fought.

“A War Atlas for Americans” is more than a set of maps and charts. Its text, prepared with the assistance of the Office of War Information, is in effect a history and explanation of the present war, its causes, its strategy, its problems. The text is simple and understandable, and really quite objective considering the fact that this is a semi-official document prepared as a “guide” to the nature and course of the war.

But it is the 84 maps which make this volume unique. Designed and executed under the direction of Emil Low-enstein, the maps are a splendid contribution to the understanding of both the European and the Pacific campaigns. The war’s military geography has not changed and these maps are just as useful with reference to today’s events, as to the study of the conquests of Poland and France or the reasons for the Japanese blow at Pearl Harbor.

“Look at the World” contains the work of Richard Edes Harrison, which has been appearing in Fortune during recent years; the text is by the Editors of Fortune.

Many of these portrayals are not “maps” in the literal sense, but are perspective views of large earth areas as they might be seen from a very great height. To emphasize geographical features, land elevations are considerably distorted. The result is a very effective convention for the graphic representation of the “new” world of air travel. This atlas is an excellent supplement to “A War Atlas for Americans.”

The effect upon cartography is only one small fraction of the change in men’s thinking wrought by the arrival of air travel.

The last twenty years or so have seen the appearance of many international “air lines” in competition for the world’s commercial air trade. In many instances these lines have tended to be operated nationally, either openly or under subsidy. The situation in South America has been typical, with German, French, Italian, American, and other lines fighting it out in fierce rivalry. The trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade is a later development.

The organization chiefly representative of the American part in this struggle, has been Pan American Airways, a private corporation Avhich was in effect subsidized by Government mail contracts and for a time enjoyed what amounted to an unofficial monopoly. “Empire of the Air” is Matthew Josephson’s account of the growth of Pan American Airways and of the part Mr. Juan Trippe has played in guiding the operations of that corporation. Much of the book is written in enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Trippe, who is given a “build up” smacking of press agentry. The fact that about one third of the book appeared originally as a series of five Saturday Evening Post articles leads further to a considerable jerkiness and some redundance.

Nevertheless, “ ‘Empire of the Air” is well worth reading as a primer of what will inevitably be one of the fiercest international commercial struggles of the post-war era.

There seems no doubt that a great part of our overseas travel will be done in planes. The distribution and regulation of this voyaging is a potential source of explosive trouble.

One other problem of the post-war era is the “control” of defeated Germany and Japan—the prevention of any ef fort at rearming and resuming the war, either by Germany or Japan.

Allan Michie’s “Keep the Peace Through Air Power” is a plea for an American-Rritish-Russian-Chinese force of about 4800 planes and about 200,000 men, internationally organized as a police instrument for the control of our defeated adversaries. The book opens with a thesis arguing the necessity for control of Germany by force, if a repetition of the 1918-1939 cycle is to be avoided; ultimately, this argument is extended to Japan. As for method, Mr. Michie favors a force of inspectors in civilian clothing inside Germany, constantly on the watch for industries resuming the manufacture of arms. As penalty, after due warning, he suggests the “inverted blockade” as used by the British for the control of recalcitrant tribesmen by using air power to keep them away from their villages.

“Keep the Peace Through Air Power” reflects an “aviation” point of view in a day when young, rising air power feels that it has a solution for all the world’s ills. Whether the specific remedy would work or not, in this case, is less important than the fact that this book is further evidence that the world’s ideas are changing fast.


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