Amelia Earhart at Lockheed Aircraft Co. in Burbank.
Photo: courtesy Harvey Christen collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Northrop Grumman Corporation just announced it will move its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. This marks the end of era. Exactly one hundred years ago, Los Angeles hosted the first major air meet in the United States. The meet attracted 225,000 spectators over ten days to Dominguez Field and launched the local airplane business. Famous fliers liked what they saw and stuck around to build planes; L.A. city boosters liked what they saw, and looked to aviation as the future of Southern California
Northrop Grumman's decision to relocate prompts a consideration of the aerospace industry's remarkable importance to the region over the last century. Southern California as we know it would not exist without aerospace. Over the twentieth century aerospace was the central factor transforming Southern California from Sunbelt orange groves to high-tech metropolis. These transformations included the millions of people who flooded the region for aerospace jobs, the test-rocket firings that flashed and echoed in the foothills, and a local economy tied to the vagaries of defense spending. Southern California aerospace in turn provided the advanced technologies central to national defense, and challenged and transformed the human imagination through the exploration of outer space.
Why did Los Angeles become the aerospace capital of the world? The usual answer is the local climate, which provided good flying weather year-round. But one must also consider a long history of civic boosterism, from newspaper publishers and real-estate developers to Hollywood moguls; cheap land; local universities as suppliers of research, testing facilities, and technical labor; open-shop rules in the labor market; local military installations, which capitalized on their distance from Washington; and a culture of expansive imagination and entrepreneurialism.
The seeds of the 1910 Air Meet fell on fertile soil. The aviation and then aerospace industry subsequently weathered the Great Depression, grew tremendously in World War II, and then mobilized for the Cold War and the space race. In the process it shaped Southern California society in profound but little-recognized ways.
Aerospace technologies affected local activities from the movie business to hot-rod cars and surfing. Aerospace shifted the demographic balance between white-collar engineering jobs and blue-collar manufacturing, and hence L.A.'s socioeconomic makeup. It reflected the local labor pool through the presence of Latinos and Asians and through what Ernie Pyle called the "Aviation Okies" who gave Los Angeles a Dust-Bowl inflection. The limited presence of women historically in the engineering profession affected their opportunities in local industry. Similarly, the relative scarcity of Catholics in science and engineering no doubt shaped the region's religious landscape. Is it just coincidence that the Air Force based its first missile office in an abandoned Catholic parish in Inglewood?
Classification and secrecy meanwhile meant aerospace engineers could not discuss their work with family or friends, and the security clearance process, which encouraged social and political conformity, shaped Southern California culture and politics.
Aerospace also affected the local environment. Groundwater pollution by rocket fuel is just the most visible legacy, but the aerospace presence influenced the broader environmental engineering of Southern California--for instance, when flooding of aircraft plants during World War II turned flood control into a matter of national security.
Many of these influences remain little understood or appreciated. When most people today think of "the industry" in this area, they no doubt think of Hollywood. But while the entertainment economy now dominates, it only passed aerospace as the main employer in California in the 1990s, after the Cold War. Meanwhile, interest in Silicon Valley as a high-tech region has ignored the larger high-tech example here in Southern California.
One cannot understand the history of Southern California without aerospace. With each passing year, more of this history is forever lost. The Huntington Library and USC are working to preserve this history, in the Aerospace History Project under the direction of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. This project is creating an archive of documentary collections and oral histories, to spark historical research into this vital subject.
Times change. The culture of Los Angeles remains imaginative and entrepreneurial, local universities still thrive in science and engineering, and the January weather is as nice now as it was in 1910, all of which help explain why corporate relocations have not ended the local aerospace presence. But land is no longer cheap, and instead of relishing distance and independence from Washington DC, government and corporate leaders seek closer connections. Above all, aerospace no longer has the cultural cachet it once enjoyed, whether in the romantic early days of flight or in the Right Stuff days of the space race. That does not mean, however, that we need ignore its central role in our history.
William Deverell is Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Peter Westwick is Assistant Research Professor in History at USC and Director of the Aerospace History Project at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.