History: the Zeppelin Age

New technologies tend to make great demands on the imagination because everything about them is novel and unprecedented. Even if you grasp the essence of the new technology, the implementation snafus, varied applications, impact and hype, cannot be imagined. The unusual thing about airships is that they are not new, and so we can learn from history. They were born in the Gilded Age, a still-unsurpassed zenith of human technological creativity, like airplanes, automobiles, electricity, radio, the factory assembly line, and so many other technologies define modern life. But unlike those, the giant rigid airships fell by the wayside, and ceased to be seen above the great cities of the world. Airships were not quite unique in this respect. During this period, windmills and electric cars were also commercially available, and disappeared from the scene, losing out to fossil fuel intensive substitutes. The coal-fired power plants replaced windmills, Detroit gas-guzzlers replaced electric cars and jet airplanes replaced the Zeppelins. That wind turbines and Tesla electric cars are now claiming back their lost markets may foreshadow a revival of giant airships, as well. The Zeppelin Age The world’s first airline, Delag, did not use airplanes. Affiliated with the Zeppelin Company, Delag carried 34,000 passengers on airships between 1910 and 1914, without a single injury, then began a regular service between Berlin and southern Germany, starting in 1919. Later, starting in 1931, it flew the Graf Zeppelin on regular flights between Germany and Brazil. The famous Zeppelin airship Hindenburg completed a full season of commercial passenger flights across the North Atlantic in 1936. During this period it was unclear whether the future of air travel would be via airships or airplanes. The Wright brothers first flew a heavier-than-air flying machine at Kitty Hawk in 1903. After a bit more work, they put a decisive end to public skepticism when the two brothers, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, performed a spectacular series of highly public demonstration flights in 1908. The big advance came in WWI when all the combatants invested heavily in war planes. By the time of the 1937 Hindenburg crash, however, airships had competed fairly comfortably with airplanes for thirty years. They were arguably safer, being less prone to crash in the event of mechanical or engine failure. They offered a smoother, quieter, more comfortable flight experience. They had greater range. The Graf Zeppelin in particular flew over a million miles without a single accident or injury. It circumnavigated the globe in 1929, then explored the Arctic in 1930, among other spectacular demonstration flights. It was such a sensation that much of the cost of its expedition was financed by press barons wanting a story and stamp collectors wanting a souvenir. The Graf Zeppelin was greeted everywhere by wildly cheering crowds, thrilled to see the giant machines passing overhead. Commercial passenger travel on Zeppelin airships was suspended, as it turned out permanently, after news of the 1937 Hindenburg accident spread. When static electricity ignited paint on the airship’s exterior and turned the world’s largest, most luxurious and admired airship into a terrifying inferno, it made an indelible impression on the public. The accident was especially shocking because the Zeppelin Company had had an unblemished safety record since 1910. Along with the Titanic, the Hindenburg is one of the most spectacular accidents in transportation history. It shares the same dramatic elements: huge scale, wealthy elite clientele, complete confidence of the crew and a reputation as the best of its class. Pride comes before a fall. It was the beginning of the end of the (first?) Age of Giant Airships. Hydrogen was wrongly blamed at the time, so the Hindenburg accident made the Zeppelin Company more eager to get helium. The world’s only helium supplies were located in the United States, which had banned its export. Just when giant rigid lighter-than-air airships seemed to have joined the ranks of established technologies, they disappeared. The Hindenburg Accident May Have Saved the Free World. But for the Hindenburg accident, the Zeppelin Company would probably have carried out its plans to build a fleet of super-zeppelins and run a worldwide airship airline. Although Zeppelin Company leader Dr. Eckener was a stalwart anti-Nazi, the company had been half appropriated by the Nazi regime even by 1937. Its fleet, personnel and technology would have become a strategic wartime asset for the Nazis and might have made a big difference. For example, airships could have changed the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic. Great Britain, Hitler’s most persistent adversary, was not economically self-sufficient, and was vulnerable to disruption of vital imports of food, oil and other raw materials by sea. Britain’s mastery of the seas had long enabled it to protect its marine supply chains, but now the Nazis threatened these through submarine warfare. Royal Air Force planes had limited range and could not protect the Atlantic convoys. This left a mid-Atlantic gap, as illustrated in the map, that the RAF could not reach. German airships, with their longer range, could have patrolled this area as scouts, alerting the German U-Boat “wolfpacks” where to attack. The likely result would have been to cut off shipping to Britain and starve Britain into surrender. Another case where airships could have made a crucial difference was the battle of Stalingrad. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 initially conquered a vast region of southern and western Russia and peaked at Stalingrad in the summer of 1942. Stalingrad became the bloodiest battle in the war, if not in human history, and for months, the Germans were slowly winning, with the Luftwaffe ruling the daytime skies and the 6th Army steadily pushing forward until it reached the Volga and captured the city. But that army had neglected its flanks and rear, and the Soviets were able to counter-attack and surround the 6th Army from behind. Stalingrad, the hard-won prize, became a death trap. The 6th Army should have tried to break out and reconnect to German supply lines. Hitler ordered the 6th Army to hold Stalingrad, while he was assured by Hermann Göring, his air marshal, that the Luftwaffe could resupply the troops by air. This failed because the airplanes were too few and too small to deliver enough supplies. The 6th Army slowly starved, and finally surrendered; a turning point in WW2. Resupplying a besieged city by air is a job for which airships were better suited than airplanes. The Hindenburg had a useful lift 70 tons and military zeppelins could have been built with even larger payloads. With cargo airships for resupply, protected by Luftwaffe planes, the 6th Army might have tied down Soviet armies indefinitely, leaving other German forces free to capture the oil-rich Caucasus. Airships could have made a difference for the other side, too. The Japanese would have been unable to sneak up on Hawaii, if the USS Macon or other airships had continued to patrol the Pacific Ocean. Why Were Giant Rigid Lighter-than-air Airships Never Revived? If the eclipse of giant airships was really a side-effect of the Hindenburg accident and the war, it would be a striking case of path dependency in the history of technology. Those who think of capitalist free enterprise economies as efficiently exploiting the demonstrated technological options will find it more satisfying to blame the lasting eclipse of giant rigid lighter-than-air airships on the jet airplane. During the 1950s and after, jet airplanes came to dominate fast, long-distance passenger travel, displacing not only airships but also passenger ocean liners and transcontinental trains. Intermittent efforts to revive giant airships foundered, to some extent, on the memory of the Hindenburg, but more on a lack of obviously profitable commercial applications. Well-to-do air passengers, who might have ridden zeppelins, became the “jet set,” and unlikely to be lured back to a slower mode of flight with a dramatic film footage to remind them of a perceived danger. Passengers in a hurry are not the whole of the transportation business, so why did airships not get drafted into other roles? Here the eclipse of the Zeppelin Company, and of Germany, might be important. If there had been no Adolf Hitler, and no Hindenburg accident, the full ingenuity and capital of the world’s greatest airship company could have been ready for the task of finding the best competitive niche for airship technology in the age of jet airplanes. If jet engines had been invented somehow when the Zeppelin Company was still thriving, giant airships may have shifted seamlessly from carrying mostly passengers to carrying mostly cargo, and by now, tens of thousands of giant airships carrying middle-value cargo over the world’s oceans would be taken for granted. On the other hand, perhaps it is only now, after the emergence of many complementary technologies, that the time is right for giant airships. Perhaps the amazing thing about the Zeppelin Company is that the genius of Albert Einstein’s homeland in its self-confident heyday managed to achieve something that should not really have been possible. They didn’t have computers to assist design and tackle the superhuman complexity of maneuvering a ship in a three-dimensional medium. They had no strain gauge or access to composites or nanomaterials. Additionally they lacked modern global communications and weather forecasting to plot the safest routes. For many reasons, we should be able to build superior airships now than were possible for the inter-war Zeppelin Company. History refutes hard-core airships skeptics. If anyone says, “I get the theory but I will doubt that it could ever work in practice, until I see it done, there are just too many unknowns,” then the history of the Zeppelin Company and the world’s first airline is a decisive refutation. History is also a burden. Absence of giant airships may seem like a proof that they are “obsolete,” or a technological wrong turn. Relative to advocates of a yet unproven technology, airship supporters face the difficult task of explaining why giant airships are not already flying if they are such a good idea’ The explanation has already been offered in a previous post: giant airships’ lack of downward scalability inhibits the innovation process, creating an unusually large capital hurdle. Not since the great pre-WW2 Zeppelin Company has enough brainpower, capital, and organization been amassed to make it happen.