October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
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.