Introducing the 747 jumbo jet: then and now

More than 40 years of progress separates the announcements of the oldest 747 and its recently upgraded descendant. What's really changed?

Product cycles for commercial airliners are notoriously slow, but the Boeing 747's longevity is nonetheless impressive. Through its various iterations, the latest of which was unveiled this week, this basic design has been flying for over 40 years.

Boeing's newest version of the plane, the 747-8 Intercontinental, differs substantially from the plane the company first teased in 1967: its computer systems, cabin design, engines and hydraulic systems all reflect innumerable technological advances made over the last four decades.

Rather than trace the 747-8's technical lineage, I thought it'd be interesting to contrast the media's coverage of the new plane and its earliest forebear.

So, what can the evolution of the story of the original Jumbo Jet--as pitched by Boeing, and as covered by the media--tell us? Let's start with a look back to the March, 1967 issue of Popular Science magazine, in which author Devon Francis wrote a breathless feature on a newly announced airliner. He wasted no time conveying his amazement:

Everything about [the 747] has to be said in superlatives. First of all, the sheer size staggers the imagination--it will carry up to 450 passengers in domestic service, 360 on longer, transoceanic hops...

Fully loaded, the plane will weigh 320 tons. That's 173 tons more than than any commercial transport in service today. Four engines of 42000 pounds' thrust each... will give it a cruise speed of 600 miles per hour.

Among the other standouts were the luggage system ("We deposit our luggage in great containers that will be rolled into the plane's belly"), the kitchen facilities (they "strain credulity"), and the early computer systems ("fascinating things have been going on in the flight deck"). But again and again, the focus returns to power, speed, and raw capability. The plane is muscular, and the reporter is impressed. After all, it is "as long as a city block."

Browsing through the website of the Los Angeles Times in 2011, we find a decidedly more sober evaluation of Boeing's newest. In the simple act of covering the plane--which many outlets have--the LAT lends import to the announcement of the plane. The reasons it was deemed worthy of coverage, though, reflect a different kind of announcement from Boeing:

On Sunday, Boeing unveiled a larger, quieter and more fuel-efficient version of the passenger jet, which was shown to a crowd of 10,000 in Everett, Wash.

The mammoth plane, dubbed 747-8 Intercontinental, was painted in a retro-looking "sunrise livery" of red, orange and white, which is a major departure from Boeing's standard blue and white...

Boeing's selling point to carriers is that the 747-8 offers 16% better fuel economy and 16% fewer carbon emissions per passenger than its predecessor. Flight testing is expected to start next month.

The two articles obviously serve different purposes. One is a lengthy preview of an entirely new plane, and the other is a blog post about a minor product update. But I think the change in tone and emphasis between the two pieces says a lot about the shifting priorities of the aerospace industry and its patrons: the first, like the plane it was written about, is full of bluster, evoking the raw technological ambition of the space age; the latter acknowledges the plane's superlative qualities, but nearly apologizes for them, instead focusing on fuel economy and noise reductions.

And even when there is a lot of raw newness to talk about--as in the case of Boeing's 787--the headlines are predominately concerned with improvements that, while important, won't warrant a "wow" from jaded passengers: better fuel efficiency, clever use of new materials, new fly-by-wire technology, and the like.

This post was originally published on


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