The Wonder Book of Aircraft is one of several older books that have been piled up, awaiting attention for some time. It was written in 1919, just over a decade and a half after the first powered flight, and a year after World War One came to an end.
It’s a book for children but easily the most adult (purely in the sense of maturity) children’s book I’ve ever read.
The writing style is completely grown-up, to the extent that if it hadn’t been specifically indicated as written for children I would never have guessed. It is also very of its time, both in assumed knowledge (parabola – a word every schoolboy knows) and general sentiment (there’s a picture of a German airship going down in flames with the caption “Just retribution”).
Mostly, this is rather engaging. It’s a charming, confident book filled with fairly simple but useful explanations of flight (there’s a strong leaning towards war machines which is natural given it came out right after the Great War), optimistic predictions for the future, the basics of aerodynamics, and a few daring stories of heroic deeds (some real, a few fiction stories). Also covered is a brief look at the history of attempted flight, airships, balloons, and how to make your own model planes.
The only bit that took me aback was the single instance, used in a story, of a term that today would definitely not be included in a children’s book (a six letter racial epithet).
The book is festooned with photographs, many from the air, and illustrations. Although the quality is naturally far less than that of cameras we have today, some photographs are nevertheless fantastic (I particularly enjoyed one showing a giant airship’s shadow alongside a steam engine). Whilst most images are of planes there are plenty of airships and balloons, as well as some other subjects (such as anti-aircraft guns).
Regular readers will be aware that this is not my usual sort of book, but I did find it fascinating nevertheless. With the exception of the model plane instruction (not my area at all) and the ‘old-fashioned’ language used on one occasion, it was thoroughly engaging and intelligently written. I tend not to write of F1 here, but the part on aerodynamics neatly applies (upside down, of course) to that motorsport, which was a nice bonus.
My own copy (a Christmas present to Ernest Wright in 1919 according to the handwritten note at the front) is in slightly tatty repair, but that didn’t stop me enjoying it a lot.