The French connections
A hundred years after the Wright brothers' triumph at Kitty Hawk, the European consortium Airbus announced a milestone of its own--surpassing the American aviation giant Boeing in the number of airliners delivered in 2003. Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, is now beating its U.S. rival at its own game of size and distance: The 555-passenger, long-range A380, bigger than any Boeing, is already in production.
Airbus's success should be no surprise. America and France may be sparring diplomatically, but technologically the two nations have had a long love affair. Each has developed outstanding innovations, and each has assiduously exploited the other's ideas.
Even the current U.S. military-industrial hegemony has some decidedly French roots. Sylvanus Thayer graduated from West Point in 1808, spent two years in Europe, and was utterly taken with French military thought and training. When he became superintendent in 1817, Thayer modeled the academy's demanding technical curriculum and ethic of honor and service after France's Ecole Polytechnique. Classics on sieges and fortifications by Louis XIV's engineering genius, Marshal Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, were standard texts; studying French was de rigueur.
Silver bullet. The French connection persisted into the Civil War. The Minie bullet that made that conflict's rifle-muskets three times as deadly as earlier weapons was originally developed by French officers. In 1885, the French ordnance engineer Paul Vieille introduced smokeless powder. French artillerymen invented the revolutionary hydropneumatic recoil that allows cannons to remain murderously locked on target for shot after shot. And where would the Navy SEALs be without scuba gear, developed in 1943 on the French Riviera by Emile Gagnan and a soon-to-be famous French officer, Jacques Cousteau?
Even interchangeable parts, the foundation of America's mass production, have French roots. The historian of science Ken Alder has shown that a French gunsmith was using such a system as early as the 1720s. By the 1780s, French military officials were introducing uniform jigs and fixtures at arms factories to enforce strict tolerances and ensure deadlier firearms and ordnance. Thomas Jefferson praised the system, and while it fell into disuse in France in the 19th century, U.S. armories embraced it. Related methods became known in Europe as the American System and, in the early 20th century, as Fordism.
Speaking of Ford, what could be more American than the automobile? Yet a Frenchman built the first self-propelled vehicle, powered by steam, more than 200 years ago. A hundred years later the French company Panhard introduced the basic architecture that automobiles have followed ever since. Henry Ford's triumphs depended not just on standardization but on use of strong, rust-resistant vanadium steel, which had impressed him in the wreck of a French racing car.
Long before Airbus, the French produced superlative aeronautical engineers. They were the first Europeans to acclaim the Wrights' breakthroughs in aircraft control, and they made key improvements. French inventors, especially Louis Bleriot and Robert Esnault-Pelterie, created the monoplane as we know it, which is why we still speak of fuselages and ailerons. Esnault-Pelterie was also the father of the joystick.
Flag-waving Americans may reply that many of France's own technological triumphs rely on ideas born here. French high-speed trains lead the world today, but as the railroad historian Mark Reutter has shown, the Budd Co. of Philadelphia was already building lightweight, articulated streamliners in the 1930s. And France now gets 75 percent of its electricity from America's great hope of 50 years ago, nuclear power. Social legislation also helps make France a showplace of other U.S. innovations: vending machines (limited retailing hours) and mass-produced antibiotics (generous health benefits).
In fact, the French have so often jettisoned their heritage in favor of novel technology that it sometimes takes Americans to defend it. The Cornell University scholar Steven Kaplan has revived the art of French bread making, and Mother Noella Marcellino, an American Benedictine nun with a Ph.D. in microbiology, has been saving the classic cheese of France from pasteurization--a process invented by the Frenchman Louis Pasteur.
It's pointless to debate who owes more to whom, and far more interesting to rejoice in cross-appropriation. Airbus has many U.S. suppliers, and Boeing will jump ahead sooner or later in the endless technological leapfrog. The last word may belong to the sage--perhaps Oscar Wilde--who said, "Talents imitate; geniuses steal."
This story appears in the February 16, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.