United Air Line.

Jonathan Morse posts about the surprising early history of airline, which began as two words:

The noun air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED) originally referred to the shortest distance between two points: a straight line, as might be drawn on a map. During the nineteenth century the term became a selling point that American railroads incorporated into their names. […]

The more famous of the two twentieth-century American magazines named Life was a mid-century weekly that specialized in photojournalism, but the earlier Life was less an illustrated history of its time than a word game played for eternal stakes. It was a humor magazine, and on January 6, 1910, it put the words air line into play and began doodling some thoughts on paper about what they were actually saying, not what they were merely meaning. […]

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers had made their first powered takeoff, and six years and a few days later it’s obvious that the cartoonist still hasn’t actually seen a wing. But he always has known the language of air. He came to crying life on the day it began filling his lungs, and now the play with the mooring ropes has spun off a name. There it is, written across what in 1910 is still probably called a pier: United Air Line. It has no plural ending because it actually is united. It is a single line segment with a beginning and an end: an air line, extending (say the other words on the pier) all the way to London.

You have to go to Jon’s post to see the amazing illustration referred to; trust me, ça vaut le détour.

Comments

  1. “Line” meaning a shipping service goes back into the 19th century. The Black Ball Line, founded in 1817, was the first scheduled trans-Atlantic packet service. It was followed by a number of others such as the Red Star Line and the White Star line. This also created the term “liner”, such as “ocean liner”.

    With the invention of aviation, it’s only natural that people would start speculating about “air lines” and “air liners”, in analogy to ocean liners, long before such things existed in reality.

    The earlier use of “air line” seems to mean what we would now say as “as the crow flies” or possibly “bee line”.

    According to Wikipedia, An air-line railroad was a railroad that was relatively flat and straight, choosing a shorter route over an easier route. In their heyday, which was prior to aviation, they were often referred to simply as “air lines.”

    In railroading a key point is the elevation of the line. Lines that are too steep require attaching auxiliary locomotives.This is actually pretty subtle because the change in elevation is not usually readily discernible without measuring instruments.

    Saying you have an “airline railroad” means basically “your cargo will get there sooner because we take the shortest route regardless of elevation, even if it means we have to put on more powerful locomotives or extra helper locomotives, regardless of the cost to us”.

    As an example, the main line from San Francisco to Portland and Seattle started out running up the Sacramento Valley through Ashland. This paralleled the old Indian trail which is now represented by I-5. But as early as the 1920s the railroad realized that the elevation gain required by the Siskiyou summit was inefficient, and started routing trains through Klamath Falls, which is a longer route but has less elevation gain. So if they had been willing to throw on extra helper locomotives through the Siskiyou Pass, it would have been an “airline route”.

    Southern Pacific in the 1950s ran an overnight freight service from LA to SF that was supposed to run at the same speed as the daytime passenger runs. Jack Kerouac says that the railroad men called it the Zipper but railroad bums called it the Midnight Ghost. That would have required auxiliary locomotives to get across the altitude gain at San Luis Obispo. That would have been an example of an airline route.

    The term “line” was also used for railroads. For example, the Soo Line, founded 1884.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    The noun air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED) originally referred to the shortest distance between two points: a straight line, as might be drawn on a map.

    That is the meaning of No. luftlinje to this day. This word is also found in Danish (but I have the impression that fugleflugtlinie “bird-flight-line” is more common). Swedish uses fågelvägen “the bird’s route”. This type of vocabulary tends to be borrowed from German, and my No.-Ge. dictionary helpfully gives me Luchtlinie, but that word is suspiciously hard to find by Google.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    Luftlinie.

    The German WiPe even has an article on the concept.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    All makes sense again.

    [checking]

    I misread the dictionary, obviously, and I should have suspected as much.

  5. I would have thought “air line” comes from “line” meaning a shipping company (Inman Line, Cunard Line, White Star Line), plus “air”, rather than anything to do with US railway marketing material about supposedly direct routes? According to Wiki the oldest use of something approaching “air line” was the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line (1913), which used what we’d now call flying boats.

    Kipling talked about passenger and cargo airships as “liners” in his science fiction, definitely as an analogue to ocean liners (he never actually uses the phrase “air liners” or “airliners”).

    The distinction at sea is between a liner, which has a schedule, and a tramp, which goes wherever the work is.

    Another minor point: as any navigator will tell you, the shortest route between two points is virtually never a straight line drawn on the map!

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Lucht is Dutch.

  7. Now that I think about it, we do say various things like “train line”, “Bakerloo Line”, “subway line” & “monorail line” (still two separate words) but not really “airplane line” or “plane line”…

  8. but not really “airplane line” or “plane line”

    Perhaps because an airline is assumed to operate airplanes? People do talk about airship lines, meaning companies that operate airships.
    The route is not an airline, it’s an airway; that’s been the case since the 1920s. What’s interesting is why an airline (singular) would have a plural name; it wasn’t “the Cunard Lines”, after all.

  9. I would have thought “air line” comes from “line” meaning a shipping company (Inman Line, Cunard Line, White Star Line), plus “air”, rather than anything to do with US railway marketing material about supposedly direct routes

    Sure, but it’s interesting to learn about the railway use — I, for one, knew nothing about it.

  10. Narmitaj says:

    “air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED)” – my father flew (mid-50s to mid-70s) for Kuwait Airways, though often people would erroneously refer to it as Kuwait Airlines. It was founded as a part subsidiary of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) a few years before the country’s independence, so no doubt took its nomenclature from the British connection.

    I hadn’t really thought of this national preference until this discussion, so did a rough count. US companies prefer “airline/s” to “airways” (not “airway”) in a ratio 22:5 in the national, regional and commuter section fields, whereas British companies (Type A Operating Licence Holders anyway) prefer “airways” 5:1 over “airlines”. (Well, not ratios, the absolute numbers in the Wikilists I linked to).

    The big international American air beasts of my youth no longer with us – PanAm (Pan American World Airways) and TWA (Trans World Airlines) – were one of each. Other defunct biggies Northwest and Eastern were both “airlines”. On the UK side, the main components of British Airways on its formation in 1974 were 3 airways – BOAC, British European Airways (BEA) and Cambrian Airways (which my uncle flew for) – and Northeast Airlines.

  11. I still resent the disappearance of Pan American, and obstinately continue to refer to the MetLife Building as the PanAm Building (which it was when I worked there).

  12. Well, United Air Lines, as it was once, began as a merger of Boeing Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, Stout Air Services, Varney Air Lines, and National Air Transport. Its original line was from Pasco, Washington (roughly equidistant from Portland, Seattle, and Spokane, and a rail hub) to Boise, Idaho, to Elko, Nevada, where it met the Transcontinental Air Mail route, which went hop-by-hop from New York to San Francisco.

  13. … six years and a few days later it’s obvious that the cartoonist still hasn’t actually seen a wing.

    You have to go to Jon’s post to see the amazing illustration referred to;

    Yes the illustration is amazing — bordering on Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg.

    Somebody’s very confused (possibly me). The cartoon is an airship (the gasbag is just out of sight at the top). No wing needed. Nothing to do with the Wright brothers. And the cartoon is illustrating luxury travel in the ship-of-the-line/liner sense. (Nobody in 1910 would associate aeroplanes with luxury travel.)

    I don’t think ‘line’ in this sense has anything to do with “play with the mooring ropes”. I think the whole article is just a mess: linguistically/etymologically and technologically.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    As it happens, I just returned to the NYC area from Fla. on the Amtrak train named the Silver Star, which inherited the name and most of the route (as varied by a few squiggles here and there) of a train first so named in the 1940’s by the Seaboard Air Line Railway, and this much earlier SARL ad from 1902 (“straight as a plumb line”) already shows much of the route we took. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air-line_railroad#/media/File:Seaboard_straight_as_a_plumb_line_ad.jpg

  15. Further to AntC’s point, 1909 happens to be the year that DELAG, a commercial zeppelin line identified on Wikipedia as “the world’s first airline” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DELAG ), began operation. Transatlantic zeppelin flights didn’t become a reality until 1928, but the idea surely would have been in the air.

    That said, there *is* a vaguely biplane-like craft in the foreground of that picture; not sure what the artist had in mind with that. Maybe the airship equivalent of a dinghy?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    The cartoon is an airship (the gasbag is just out of sight at the top). No wing needed. Nothing to do with the Wright brothers. And the cartoon is illustrating luxury travel in the ship-of-the-line/liner sense. (Nobody in 1910 would associate aeroplanes with luxury travel.)

    Bingo.

  17. Well, United Air Lines, as it was once, began as a merger of Boeing Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, Stout Air Services, Varney Air Lines, and National Air Transport.

    Ah, so “Lines” plural was correct in that case, because it was the product of the union of several different air lines, cf “United States”.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    On the singular-v-plural issue, some casual googling suggests that “Freight Lines” may be more common than “Freight Line” in the names of U.S. trucking companies. How much of that reflects historical mergers versus just a marketing desire by even small startup operations to suggest “hey, we serve more than a single route” is not clear to me. “Freightliner” as brand of heavy truck (owned since 1981 by Daimler-Benz) apparently first originated as an in-house-only manufacturer for Consolidated Freightways (plural rather than singular, and -ways rather than -lines, a variant noted above for the airline business). Whether the -liner element in “Freightliner” was supposed to evoke “ocean liner” or the maybe-related-maybe-not “streamliner” from railroad usage (where I think it’s better parsed streamline + -er not stream + -liner although perhaps it’s deliberately ambiguous?) is not clear to me. The title of the Gram Parsons song “Luxury Liner” (recorded after his death by Emmylou Harris) seems to be about an 18-wheeler (“forty tons of steel”) but that was perhaps a somewhat jocular usage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jn77ZraSZ8A

  19. Well, if we’re talking “liner” music, let’s not forget the great and too little remembered Charlie Barnet’s signature tune “Skyliner.”

  20. Tim May says:

    And the cartoon is illustrating luxury travel in the ship-of-the-line/liner sense.

    I don’t think the “line” in ship of the line is relevant here either.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    The original Black Ball Line of the early 19th century, referenced in this thread’s first comment, may not have given rise to too many “liner”-themed popular songs,but the early 20th century’s Black Star Line did much better in that regard. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Star_Line#References_in_popular_music

  22. Two Sevens Clash is a great album.

  23. Streamline (originally an open compound) means the trajectory along which a mass element moves in a fluid flow. All other related terms come from the very streamline, which means the process of designing and constructing an object so that the fluid flow around it is smoother, thus reducing viscous drag.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    German has taken this and run with it, yielding stromlinienförmig for “streamlined”, literallly and nonsensically “streamline-shaped”.

  25. Trond Engen says:

    As has Norwegian, naturally. Strømlinjeforma in a metaphorical sense can often be translated as English “smooth”.

  26. Is “streamline-shaped” nonsensical? if you streamline an object you are fairing it so that the surface of the object follows the streamlines. You want a nice smooth low-drag laminar flow over the surface. If there are gaps between the streamlines and the surface you’ll get turbulence, which means drag.

  27. Marja Erwin says:

    I see upper and lower horizontal sails, but no sign of any gas bag.

  28. Lars (the original one) says:

    Well, the shape of the object determines the stream lines, so saying the shape follows the stream lines is putting the cart before the horse. Depending on your philosophy, ‘stream line-shaped’ is either tautological, nonsensical or short for something like ‘shaped for optimal stream lines’ or ‘shaped to maximize laminar flow’. Or maybe ‘shaped like that drawing of stream lines around an airfoil I saw in Popular Mechanics’.

  29. Jamessal says:

    There it is, written across what in 1910 is still probably called a pier: United Air Line.

    That should have been “. . . what in 1910 was called a pier (and probably still is) . . . ” or something to that effect. Regardless of the clumsy sentence, he was right: pier can be used to mean airport terminal 108 years later. I have no idea how common that knowledge is.

    Thanks to Hat for the post and Maidhc for that lucid and informative first comment.

  30. nbmandel says:

    The original Black Ball Line of the early 19th century, referenced in this thread’s first comment, may not have given rise to too many “liner”-themed popular songs

    Oh no? Well, I guess it is only a passing reference, but in one version of NEW YORK GIRLS:

    Oh, my flash man, he’s a Yankee,
    with his hair cut short behind;
    He wears a pair of red-top boots
    and he sails on the Black Ball Line

    (Chorus)
    Oh, you santy, my dear Annie,
    Oh, you New York girls, can’t you dance the polka?

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