In this analysis of the early American aircraft industry, historian Jacob Vander Meulen argues that the industry's domination by Congress and military was wasteful, at odds with technological imperatives, and unfair to manufacturers and workers. Congress used its powers of appropriation and contracting to organize the industry, Vander Meulen writes, to determine market size and business distribution among competing firms, and to define competition itself. (For example, manufacturers were denied property rights to their own aircraft designs). Guided by a vision of antitrust and of aeronautics as a "democratic technology", Congress intended to preserve competition, equal access to federal contracts, and entrepreneurial opportunity in the aircraft industry. Despite its good intentions, Congress created a crippling business environment - a situation that nearly proved fatal to an industry driven by costly, complex, and relentless technological change. To gain the broadest views of the industry, Vander Meulen integrates the perspectives of business history, military history, labour history, the history of technology and the history of the state.
He documents the early development of companies such as Lockheed, Boeing, Douglas, Martin, Grumman, Curtiss-Wright and Pratt & Whitney and surveys their technology, their production techniques, their labour relations and their relations with the army and navy. He also identifies both the social and the industrial bases of airpower and comments on the implications of the industry's experiences for contemporary military industrial relations.