By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere. Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations.
In August 1939, the newly formed Jamaica Birth Control League opened the island’s first birth control clinic in Kingston to distribute diaphragms at cost or free to working-class women. To advertise their services, the League published a small, discreet notice in the “Wanted” section of the Daily Gleaner, the island’s main newspaper. Within a year, some 500 women had written passionate letters to the League from across the island; thousands more would show up at the clinic’s doorstep, eager to seize on new methods for controlling reproduction.
In 1903, the Austrian journalist Emil Löbl observed that “many of today’s readers” see their newspaper as a “universal encyclopedia,” the study of which, they believed, satisfied their duty as “cultivated people” (Kulturmenschen) to stay informed. Whether or not this was a positive development, journalists needed to recognize that “modern readers expected of newspapers the greatest degree of universality, the widest variety, the most complete abundance of content.”