|Delta Air Lines (Delta) is one of the great surviving legacy airlines of the first
century of flight. In the annals of American aviation history its origins are unique. Delta’s
beginning can be traced to the arrival of the boll weevil from Mexico into Texas in 1892.
Unlike other national airlines that were nurtured on mail subsidies, Delta evolved from
experiments using airplanes to counter the cotton weevil scourge from the air.
The iconic book on the subject is Delta: The History of an Airline authored by
two eminent Auburn University history professors, W. David Lewis and Wesley Phillips
Newton. This dissertation explores more closely the circumstances and people involved
in Delta’s early years up to World War II. It is chronologically organized and written in a
narrative style. It argues Delta’s development was the result of a decades-long
incremental and evolutionary process and not the calculated result of a grand design or
the special insight of any one person. Various individuals, influenced by diverse cultural,
political, and economic factors, interacted to frame the outcome. The socio-technological
system that is Delta today originated from a complex set of seemingly unrelated
circumstances. The slightest variation might have modified, sidetracked, or even
terminated the process.
The search for primary source material determined the methodology undertaken
for this study. The investigation led to each of the cities where Delta had an early
connection and to libraries and repositories across the United States and in South
America. A variety of diverse primary source materials, including government
publications, newspaper articles, interviews, library subject files, and archival
repositories, was accessed. Much of this information was unavailable to historians Lewis
This study explains how in its early years a large American legacy airline evolved
from a small crop dusting company chartered to help save cotton from the boll weevil
infestation in the southern United States. More Broadly, it contributes to the
understanding of the origins of commercial aviation in the United States and the world.