Fifty Years Ago

May 2017

Birth of the Sonic Boom

On October 1 the first three hundred families, all headed by exservicemen, moved into brand-new
Cape Cod houses in an instant suburb a dozen miles east of New York
City. Four months earlier the area had
been farmland, but since then Levitt &
Sons had built two thousand houses.
Levittown would soon become famous
for turning families of modest means
into homeowners, but at the start there
was no Levittown and no homeowners. The development was called Island Trees (it would be renamed in
1948), and its acres of nearly identical
two-bedroom houses were rental
units—spacious by comparison with
city apartments, but not meant for
long-term occupancy. As the renters
moved into their new homes on Peachtree, Appletree, and Cherry Tree Streets,
they were descended upon by milkmen, grocers, and diaper services. With
another 100 to 150 families moving
in every week, there would be plenty
of customers to go around.

Levitt switched from rentals to sales
almost immediately. Renting cost sixty
dollars a month, but with a loan obtained under the GI Bill, a veteran
could buy one of the sixty-nine-hundred-dollar (at first) houses for only
fifty-two dollars a month, with a minimal down payment. This shift toward
ownership led the company to make its
houses more attractive and distinctive.
The Cape Cods had been offered in
five “variations” that could have qualified for one of those spot-the-difference puzzles in the Sunday paper. In
1949 Levitt began selling “ranch”
houses that were slightly larger and
could be jiggered into more variable
configurations. The ranches also came
with such frills as a picture window
in back (which usually afforded a
panoramic view of the neighbors’ picture window) and a carport, fireplace,
finished attic, and built-in television.

As the street names suggest, each
six-thousand-square-foot lot came with
four fruit trees, which residents were
obligated to maintain. Other rules
banned Levittowners from erecting
fences, planting shrubs, hanging laundry outdoors on weekends, or selling
their houses to blacks. (This last restriction was in accordance with federal housing policy, which decreed that
a homogeneous community is a happy
community. It also soothed anxiety
about something postwar Long Islanders feared even more than nuclear
annihilation: decreased property values.) By the time the last unit was finished, in 1951, Levittown contained
17,447 houses. In future years it would
attract almost as many sociologists,
as Levittown became an irresistible
laboratory for scholars studying life
in America’s suburbs.

On October 5 Harry S. Truman
became the first President to address the nation on television from the
White House. The subject of his’speech
was the need for Americans to conserve food in order to feed Europe.
Displaying little of his successors’ media savvy, Truma^i declined the opportunity to hog the camera. Instead
he appeared as the last of five speakers, coming on after rousing talks from
the Secretaries of Agriculture, State,
and Commerce and the chairman of
the Citizens Food Committee. With
only a few hundred thousand television
sets in the entire country, the vast majority of Americans listened to the program on radio.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who would
often watch three evening newscasts
at once, Truman never showed much
interest in television. Still, he later
made effective use of the medium to
announce the outbreak of the Korean
War in 1950 and his seizure of the nation’s steel industry during a 1951
strike. (One Truman innovation that
did not, thankfully, become popular
was CBS’s live broadcast of a 1950
cabinet meeting.)

In 1951 Truman made another accommodation to new technology that
would have far-reaching results. He
let reporters use recording machines
to tape his remarks at press conferences, not for broadcast but so they
could check their notes. For decades
presidential press conferences had been
informal, chatty affairs, and Truman’s
decision did not immediately change
this. But in 1955 his successor, Dwight
D. Eisenhower, allowed his conferences to be filmed for broadcast, with
the understanding that his press secretary could edit them first. From there
it was a short step to live broadcasts,
sound bites, one-liners, and all the fulsome vapidity that characterizes American politics in the information age.

On October 14 Air Force Capt.
Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager,
flying a Bell X-I, became the first pilot
to break the sound barrier. Today, with
supersonic flight routine, the sound
barrier seems an arbitrary figure, like
a .300 batting average. But during
and immediately after World War II
it was real—and frightening. As planes
of that era approached the speed of
sound, cockpit controls would lock up
and massive, uncontrollable turbulence
would batter the airframe.

The X-I was designed for breaking
the sound barrier and nothing else. It
was tiny (Yeager had been chosen in
part for his small stature), and its fuselage was shaped like a .50-caliber bullet, because bullets were known to
achieve supersonic speeds. Its wings
were swept back in a V shape to move
the center of gravity toward the rear.
Since jets were still in their early stages,
the X-I had a rocket engine that ran
on diluted ethyl alcohol and liquid
oxygen. It provided two and a half
minutes of extremely powerful thrust.

To break the barrier, the X-I was
loaded into the bomb bay of a B-29
and released at twenty-five thousand
feet with Yeager in the cockpit. He
climbed to forty-two thousand feet on
two of the engine’s four chambers,
then switched on a third and watched
his speed indicator zoom to seven
hundred miles per hour, 1.06 times
the speed of sound at that altitude.
Observers on the ground heard a sonic boom, a sound that would become
familiar in years to come. Yeager shot
upward until his fuel was exhausted
and then glided to a landing at Muroc
Army Air Field in California. The Air
Force did not officially announce the
achievement until June 1948, though
Aviation Week magazine had leaked
word the previous December.

Not long afterward, a pair of planes
even more distinctive, though much
less important, than the X-I were
launched. On October 21 the jet-powered Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing
took to the air for the first time, landing at Muroc thirty-four minutes after
leaving its factory in Hawthorne, California. As its nickname suggests, the
YB-49 had no tail or fuselage, greatly
reducing its weight. In theory, the
resulting increase in range would make
it valuable as a long-range bomber.
In practice, packing everything inside
the 172-foot wing—pilot, fuel tanks,
and cargo space—made the airfoil too
thick to take advantage of modern
aeronautical science, and its unconventional shape made it hellishly difficult to control. In a June 1948 crash
the pilot Glen W. Edwards (for whom
Muroc was renamed in 1950) and four
other crewmen died. Northrop eventually built eleven Flying Wings for
the Air Force, but in 1949 the contract was canceled and the planes were
chopped to pieces. Northrop revived
the single-wing idea in the 1980s with
its radar-invisible stealth bomber, this
time with a computer to control its
extremely unstable flight.

Then, on November 2, Howard
Hughes flew his mammoth HK-I
wooden flying boat—popularly called
the Spruce Goose, though it was made
mostly of plastic-impregnated birch—
for the first and only time. Hughes
had built the 150-ton plane during the
war as a troop transport, using seven
million dollars of his own money and
eighteen million from the government.
It was designed to seat 500 civilians or
700 soldiers. After flying seventy feet
above California’s Long Beach Harbor for about a mile, Hughes denied
that his flight had anything to do with
a congressional committee that was
investigating the boondoggle. Still, the
plane never flew again. None of the
armed forces could find any use for
it, and it was eventually turned into a
museum near Long Beach.