19 September 2012 by Dickon Ross
As a naturally variable material, wood fared better in the hands of the craftsmen than the production line. But it survived the revolutions in manufacturing and consumer technology. When our grandparents went out to buy the new valve-based technology, they brought it home in wooden cabinets. Gramophones, radios and televisions all started out as wooden pieces of furniture before plastics and metals took over. In fact, electrical goods came in wooden cabinets right up to the 1970s radiograms and at CeBit this year I saw signs of a comeback in the gadgets on show.
Even in North London's burgeoning aircraft industry, wood found a role alongside the modernist material aluminium. Everyone remembers the Spitfire fighter but the 'Wooden Wonder' de Havilland Mosquito was vital to the war effort as a reconnaissance plane, fighter and bomber. It was even modified to carry the bouncing bomb.
Hermann Goring said: "It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again." It wasn't the only wooden aircraft of the time - there was also the 'Spruce-Goose' H-4 Hercules.
Now wood is set to make a comeback in today's defence industry, even though it must have a bewildering (and presumably top secret) array of materials to consider.
Break it down and wood could be even more useful. Scientists researching the constituent parts of wood see future applications in everything from antibacterial agents to tougher tyres. Meltable wood polymers could one day replace plastic polymers and liquid wood could even be used to injection mould products like toys.
Wood is even useful in its destruction. It was man's primary fuel for millennia up to the industrial revolution, when coal and gas then took over. We look at the pros and cons of bringing back this sustainable, renewable, original non-fossil fuel.
Newer materials have replaced wood in some places but it's just too good a material to die. It's widespread and it's more accessible than mined materials like metals or manmade materials like plastics. It's easy to work. It's strong but light - take your pick of how strong or how light you want it. And it's a warm, human material, naturally beautiful to start with and stunningly beautiful when carefully finished.
It's biodegradable. And it's also sustainable. That's why it's making a comeback in the construction industry, from the Olympic Park to Barratt homes, as architects reach for the ply to take wood to a new high - or as high as building regulations allow them to.
Wood is pretty damn amazing stuff.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology
Posted By: Dickon Ross @ 19 September 2012 04:16 PM Introducing an issue of E&T
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