Gizmodo Zeppelin is not the Hindenburg

by Dan 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.”

gizmodo

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:

akron-construct-109a-web

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

goodyear-airdock-interior

Interior of the Goodyear Airdock

goodyear-airdock

The Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock

airdock-photo-construction

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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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    Joe Bloggs March 15, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Hi folks,
    Interesting pictures at how very complex the internal structure of the old Zeppelins was. I wonder how many manhours it took to do all the riveting.
    If you want to see some more airship pictures take a look at my 2 new websites, the first http://www.airshipblimp.com is for my new company and the second http://www.airship.me is my version of an airship comedy site.
    Regards
    Joe

    Reply

    another Zeppelin Enthusiast January 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you. And a very nice web site you have here too. I have followed this interesting subject since I was a little kid, and my great-uncle gave me Lehmann’s book for my ninth birthday. Right now I live near Niederstetten, Germany, the birthplace and longtime residence of Albert Sammt, who commansded LZ-130 “Graf Zeppelin II” after the Hindenburg’s demise. I think they have set up a little museum here, but I’d have to check.
    As to building the airships, I have just seen some historic footage of teh buiilding of USS Macon, but it was not so distinct that I could make out scaffolding; but undoubtedly there must have been. Captain Lehmann in his book mentions some kind of scaffolding where Count Ferdiand von Zeppelin took up some university students come to see LZ-1 being built in 1900, and how he marched along a four-meter wooden plank from teh scaffolding to the ship’s bow, and only one of the students dared follow him; now, when LZ-129 and LZ-130 were being built, things were surely on a larger scale but possibly not so different.
    Keep up the good work.

    Reply

    another Zeppelin Enthusiast January 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Dear John,
    I happen to have an original example of Captain Ernst Lehmann’s book “Auf Luftpatrouille und Weltfahrt” from 1937. It includes several photographs of the “Hindenburg” abuilding, and yes, they did use such long ladders. As far as I’m informed, the rings of the frame were assembled on the ground, by riveting together many girders. Then they were hoisted upright, probably with a portal crane, and the connecting girders were riveted to the rings. The fins too were built on the ground and then hoisted to their position. As I could see from original footage of that time, the bow and stern sections were too built on teh ground and then hoisted into place. Intermediate rings, nets, gas cells, tensioning wires, gas cells and all the internal installations of the airship were then installed, and then the external fabric was sewed on and painted and doped. Hope this information is helpful.

    Reply

    Dan (Airships.net) January 24, 2010 at 9:56 am

    The Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (the Zeppelin Construction Company, or “LZ”) did use long ladders for certain task, especially for tasks involving the fabric covering as shown Lehmann’s book; I also have a photo of workers on those ladders painting the Olympic Rings on Hindenburg’s side. In general, however, and especially during construction of the framework, the LZ relied more on scaffolding than on the tall ladders seen in the Gizmodo photo of the USS Macon.

    Reply

    John Borrego January 15, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Very interesting. You point out that the enormously tall ladders were used at Goodyear-Zeppelin. Was this different from the construction techniques used by the German Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH? Did they use scaffolding of some kind? It is hard to imagine how the construction workers managed to put together these enormous aircraft.

    Reply

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