Concorde: How a dead end can be a glorious high point of innovation


1976 Paris-Rio First commercial Concorde flight to Brazil Photo: Jean-Claude Deutsch Paris Match

I chose Concorde out of a 100 Great British Innovations for a National Museum project to mark National Science and Engineering Week. You can vote for it here. This is why: 

The world’s only commercial supersonic airliner — was an engineering innovation that grew out of a business goal – to halve the translatlantic journey time as an era of longdistance air travel opened up. But it was rooted in our most childlike fantasies – for speed, for time travel – arriving before you left – and it looked like it might be a step towards, one day, routine space travel. I was 8 when it first took off for New York, and looked up at it from my south London playground every day. I continued to look up as an adult till it was grounded for good ten years ago. It had style and streamlined space age beauty – those delta wings, that beautifully sharp dipping nose cone for improved pilot visibility. And Concorde was a product of Anglo French cooperation – what could be more futuristic than that?

My dad found a way to get us on it on a short internal US flight when I was 11 year old and I remember staring at that Mach counter and willing it to reach 1 – the speed of sound.  Concorde’s fuel-guzzling need was its fatal flaw. We forgave it for becoming a taxi service to the superrich, who would be blasé about the Mach counter reaching 2.04 – its top speed of 1350 miles per hour. The fact that Concorde never made any money, that it became a commercial dead end only makes its innovation all the greater. The aeronautical industry sees a legacy in the commercial success of the European consortium Airbus. But Concorde’s real legacy I think was its ambition. It was childhood’s dream. And its demise was childhood’s end.

Further reading/listening

The Great British Innovation vote — listen to all 100 nominations

Classic engineering projects – Concorde (Engineering and Technology Magazine)

How the Space Shuttle broke my heart and left me on the gantry of broken dreams – The Independent 2011 (featuring Concorde and the Hovercraft)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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