Skyways to Empire

Mobilities, Knowledge Flows, and Entangled Logistics in Global Aviation, c. 1918–1939

Andreas Greiner

In the 1920s and 1930s, state-sponsored airline companies of all major European powers and the United States developed sophisticated route networks to their far-flung colonies and dominions in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. The project "Skyways to Empire" studies the development of these world-spanning airline services. It investigates how infrastructure networks were created and governed across national boundaries before the Second World War, how aviation knowledge and technologies began to circulate on a global scale, and how logistical chains functioned on the spot.

In the interwar period, civil aviation became a tool of empire-building on either shore of the Atlantic. Being driven by the same geopolitical ambitions, the growing air networks of different imperial states, including the British Empire, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States, were interconnected in multiple ways. "Skyways to Empire" is the first comprehensive study to draw attention to the many trans-imperial dynamics in the expansion of airborne infrastructure. Challenging the dominant narrative of aeronautical development in the interwar years as a history of daring national pioneers, the project unfolds an entangled history. First, it identifies patterns of commonality, connectivity, and coordinated planning underlying the evolution of seemingly separated airline networks. Secondly, the research is interested in the more immaterial networks of imperial aviation, illuminating transfers and circulation of technologies, knowledge, and experts across political borders.

From a methodological point of view, "Skyways to Empire" explores the potential of a multi-layered approach to infrastructure history. From a macro-perspective, the project studies the structure of airline networks and their transformative effects on space. Beyond the dominant narrative of connections as a keystone in global history, the research pays close attention to blind spots in global networks, to examples of disintegration and disentanglement. It investigates which parts of the often-cited “world connecting” (Emily S. Rosenberg) were actually connected in the 1930s.

On a micro-analytical level, the project explores how infrastructural arrangements played out on the spot. Aviation provides an appealing subject for adding local layers to the study of global networks because it was, surprisingly, firmly rooted on the ground. Because journeys were accomplished in many separate stages, airplanes required landing facilities along all routes. An analytical zoom into the microcosms of airfields provides new perspectives on the material dimension of imperial aviation. It redirects our gaze to the fragility of logistical systems and reveals how local conditions and actors had decisive impact on global structures.