The retractable airplane landing gear and the Northrop "anomaly": Variation-selection and the shaping of technology

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Citation: Walter G. Vincenti (1994) The retractable airplane landing gear and the Northrop "anomaly": Variation-selection and the shaping of technology. Technology and Culture (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The retractable airplane landing gear and the Northrop "anomaly": Variation-selection and the shaping of technology
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Science and Technology Studies (RSS), Aeronautics (RSS), History (RSS)


Written by a professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics, Vinceti (1994) is largely a historical description, or two histories perhaps, of retractable landing gear and its absence on Northrop planes in the early part of the twentieth century.

Essentially, most higher performance airplanes began switching to retractable landing gear while Northrop, one the makers of the highest performance, most cutting-edge, and fastest planes, explored a different technological path that involved putting aerodynamics covers (called "pants") on the landing gear instead. This continued for some time until, eventually (but much later than almost all its competitors) it switched to retractable gear as well.

Vincenti first describes what he calls the usual view which basically just describes Northrop as an anomaly. Northrop had done wind tunnel tests and saw that the benefit of retractable gear was not very large over using gear pants instead. Due to other concerns like the reliability of the gear and its interference other parts of the plane, he went down a path of no retractable gear. The traditional story is that was simple an anomaly based on an atypical outcome from a balancing act that included performance, weight, initial cost, reliability and maintenance concerns.

Vincenti argues that, upon digging deeper, this is probably an over-simplication. He describes how a number of other manufacturers played around with all sorts of wheel coverings and how the idea of retractable gear was not at all clear more broadly in the industry. He explains that textbook writers were unclear about what the best course of action was.

Vincenti argues that we can only see the gear as an anomaly well after the fact and that this was not clear at all while it was being done. Building on his book, he describes this as a model of a 'variation-selection model where based on blind variation and selective retention although he rephrased this as unforesighted rather than blind. He argues that from this perspective, we should not see the trouser gear as an anomaly but, rather, as a part of an essential learning process. Essentially, it only became clear that the trouser gear was suboptimal when plans began moving at much higher speed. Looking back, Vincenti points out, things always seem more clear.

Vincenti also offers an extended description of the process of shaping technology. He argues that social considerations were hardly present in almost any of the technological decisions that were made. He argue instead that, "the direction for the design was shaped by social consideration, the form of the resulting artifact by technical." Vincenti argues that social consideration occupy a high position on a hierarchy of decisions but warns us against seeing processes as being overly socially determined.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Vincenti's article is not widely known or widely cited but is a beautiful in-depth description that adds color and depth to questions of social factors and their role in technological innovation. It also provides a concrete, and short, approach to his longer book.