Gizmodo Zeppelin is not the Hindenburg

by Dan Grossman on January 15, 2010

The gadget blog Gizmodo recently published a wonderful photograph of an airship under construction, asking:  “Ever wondered how a beast like the Hindenburg zeppelin—a gigantic 803 feet in length and 130 feet in diameter structure—was built in the 1930s? Here’s the answer: With the biggest ladders you can possibly imagine.”


The image of workmen on these absurdly long ladders is so cool that the post has been widely circulated.  But while Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo correctly said “like the Hindenburg,” the image has been mislabeled by others in numerous Tweets and blogs as a photo of the Hindenburg itself.

The photo on Gizmodo is not the German zeppelin Hindenburg, however, but the American Navy airship USS Macon (ZRS-5) under construction by the Goodyear-Zeppelin company in Akron, Ohio.

USS Macon under construction

USS Macon under construction

The long ladders which make the photo so notable were typical of Goodyear’s construction technique, as seen in this postcard of Macon’s sister ship, USS Akron:


The framework of sister ships ZRS-4 Akron and ZRS-5 Macon were nearly identical, and it can be difficult to tell one ship from another in photographs of the construction process, but the similarity between the Gizmodo photograph and another known photograph of the USS Macon (provided by airship modeler and historian Andreas Horn) confirm that the Gizmodo photo is USS Macon; even the ladders and scaffolding are in the same position:

USS Macon Under Construction

USS Macon Under Construction

Some Historical Detective Work

But for those who enjoy historical detective work, even without the Macon photo for comparison, a number of clues indicate that the photograph on the Gizmodo blog depicts an American airship of the Akron/Macon class rather than the German zeppelin Hindenburg.

The Deep Rings

The framework in the Gizmodo photograph identifies the ship as either Akron or Macon, which were distinctive for their “Deep Ring” construction.  These deep rings can be seen in both the Goodyear-Zeppelin photo below (right) and the photo on the Gizmodo blog, and they differed significantly from the braced single-girder main rings used by German zeppelins like the Hindenburg (below left):

Design of main rings of Hindenburg (left) and Akron/Macon (right)

Design of main rings of Hindenburg (left) and Akron/Macon (right)

The Lack of a Cruciform Tail

The framework in the Gizmodo photograph also lacks the distinctive cruciform tail structure found in German zeppelins like the Hindenburg, in which the horizontal and vertical fins were connected with girders passing through the hull in an + shape for additional strength (see diagram, below right):

Cruciform tail of Hindenburg (left) vs. Akron/Macon (right)

The Goodyear Airdock

The hangar in which the ship is being built also identifies the ship as USS Akron or USS Macon, since it is the famous Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio.  The Airdock can be identified by the row of rectangular windows, the design of the ceiling, and the curved, distinctive “orange peel” doors for which the building was known:

USS Macon under construction

USS Macon under construction


Interior of the Goodyear Airdock


The Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock


The Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock

Some Extra Information From Rick Zitarosa

But for a final bit of advanced detective work and additional information, I turned to my friend Rick Zitarosa, the historian of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society and one of the most knowledgeable students of American naval airships.

Rick pointed out that according to the state of completion of the framework, the Gizmodo photo would have been taken about seven months before the Macon’s first flight (on April 21, 1933), which dates the photograph sometime in the fall of 1932.

Rick’s eagle eye also noticed that the factory crew appears to be working without coats or jackets, which he mentioned as further evidence that the photo is the Macon and not the Akron; seven months before the Akron’s first flight (on September 25, 1931) would have placed the photograph in the winter of 1930, and there would have been a cold winter chill in the giant unheated Airdock. And as a final piece of historical information, Rick pointed out that the fabric covering of ZRS-4 Akron was applied from bow to stern, while the covering of ZRS-5 Macon was applied from stern to bow, as seen in the photograph above.

And a Note of Thanks to Gizmodo

Finally, a note of thanks to Jesus Diaz and the folks at Gizmodo for keeping interest alive in these great airships of the past.

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