Retrotechtacular: The Iron Giants That Built The Jet Age

In the closing months of World War II, the Axis and the Allies were throwing everything they had at each other. The tide was turning to the Allies’ favor, but the Germans were showing a surprising resilience, at least in terms of replacing downed fighter and bomber aircraft. When the Allies examined the wreckage of these planes, they discovered the disturbing truth: the planes contained large pieces forged from single billets of metal, which suggested a manufacturing capability none of the Allies possessed and which allowed the Germans to quickly and cheaply make better and faster planes.

When the war was over, the Allies went looking for the tools the Germans had used to make their planes, and found massive closed-die forging presses that could squeeze parts out of aluminum and magnesium alloys in a single step. The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. Thus began the Heavy Press Program, an ultimately successful attempt by the US military to close a huge gap in strategic manufacturing capabilities that [Machine Thinking] details in the excellent video below.

One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. But without it and similar machines that came from the program, planes from the B-52 to the Boeing 747 would have been impossible to build. And this isn’t dead technology by any means; sold to Alcoa in 1982 after having been operated by them for decades, the “Fifty” recently got a $100 makeover after cracks appeared in some castings, and the press and its retro-brethren are still squeezing out parts for fighters as recent as the F-35.

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