A wonderful new book about the Hindenburg disaster has just been published.
Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology, is a reappraisal of the large rigid airship by science writer Ed Regis, who argues that the very concept of a hydrogen-inflated passenger airship was flawed from the beginning and an example of a “pathological technology.”
The book is one of the most readable accounts of airship history that has recently been published. Regis has a delightful turn of phrase on almost every page, and while many of his jibes are sardonic or sarcastic they are always well deserved and justified by the facts.
The author’s argument that airships were inherently flawed will be considered heretical by those who view Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg solely in the warm light of nostalgia, but his thoughts are refreshingly realistic and he makes some excellent and well-grounded points.
Regis devotes almost 200 pages to a clear, readable, and accurate history of lighter-than-air flight. The book covers aircraft from Rozier to Schwarz to Zeppelin; describes the passenger zeppelins of DELAG and the DZR; and discusses the British and American experience with airships. And most notably, Regis includes a clear and readable account of Hindenburg’s final moments, the fate of the individuals onboard, and a discussion of the various investigations into the cause of the disaster.
For its discussion of airship history alone, the book is well worth buying.
And the book is interesting for the larger thesis advanced by Regis, whether one accepts it or not. Regis uses Hindenburg as an example of what he calls a “pathological technology” whose “œobvious and sizable risks were ignored, discounted, minimized, and swept under the rug by the influence of what amounted to an overriding, all-consuming, and almost irresistible emotional infatuation.”
Regis attributes the development of zeppelins to a form of delirium: “The Hindenburg and other zeppelins were built and flown because the bigger these leviathans got the more they acquired a spellbinding, mesmerizing, hypnotizing, practically immobilizing sway over human minds and emotions.”
Regis has a good point, and one that may explain my own fascination with these beasts: I have often said there is something magical about an aircraft the size of the United States Capitol that floats weightless in the air, and perhaps that is the precise point Regis is making. But by attributing the world’s 37-year devotion to the airship solely to delirium, Regis neglects an important consideration: For much of those 37 years there was simply no alternative.
While it is possible that people subconsciously ignored the risks of the airship because they were blinded by a psychological phenomenon, it is equally possible that they considered and deliberately disregarded these risks because they had no choice; as dangerous as the technology was, it was the only way to fly. It was the airship or nothing.
Even the use of hydrogen itself may be explained by necessity rather than delirium. The danger of hydrogen was well known: As Regis himself points out, Henry Cavendish, the man who discovered hydrogen, was more interested in its explosive properties than its lifting ability. But for Count Zeppelin and others there was nothing else available. It was hydrogen or nothing.
And the hydrogen airship allowed man to achieve feats of aviation that were inconceivable with any other aircraft of the time. When the world’s first zeppelin, LZ-1, first flew on July 2, 1900, it carried a crew of men for 3-1/2 miles; the Wright brothers’ first flight was still three and a half years in the future, and when the Wright airplane did fly for the first time, on December 17, 1903, it managed only a 120 foot hop. The Wright Flyer’s longest flight of the day carried one man just 852 feet in a short 59 seconds. In 1908, the year the Wright brother’s airplane was made public, with a version able to carry a single passenger, the zeppelin L-4 made a 24-hour endurance flight, and between 1910 and 1914 DELAG’s commercial zeppelins carried thousands passengers on hundreds of flights without a single injury.
At all stages of the zeppelin’s brief history it was ahead of all other aircraft of its time. In 1919 the British R-34 crossed the Atlantic in both directions, and the German LZ-120 Bodensee was carrying 26 passengers in comfort on regularly scheduled flights between Southern Germany and Berlin. In 1928 LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin was launched, and within a few years it began the world’s first intercontinental airline passenger service, carrying passengers between Europe and South America long before any passenger airplane could cross an ocean.
In other words, for most the period between 1900 and 1937 it was the airship or nothing, and it is not in the nature of human ambition ““ and certainly not in the nature of men like Zeppelin and Eckener and Rosendahl — to accept nothing.
We also cannot divine the motivation behind the hydrogen airship — Delirium or Pragmatism? — without remembering that people of the era were willing to accept a much different level of risk than we are today. In the 19th and early 20th centuries routine factory work and construction projects had injury and death rates that we can barely imagine, and the earliest ships, trains and airliners were also enormously dangerous but nevertheless embraced by the public.
Of course there is a difference; early trains and airliners were dangerous because they were embryonic — the first versions of a technology that could, and did, become safe ““ while Regis argues that large hydrogen airships could never become safe, and they certainly never did. But was that obvious to people at the time?
And there is one other thing we must remember with regard to airships of the 1930s: Helium was on the horizon. If airships had been inflated with helium, as many people predicted and desired, would they have been inevitably doomed, or merely inevitably obsolete?
There is also a larger question one might ask about the book’s main thesis: Has Regis has identified enough examples to justify a generalized concept of “pathological technology?”
Hindenburg is the best example Regis can find of a technology that was arguably “œpathological,” and he seems to have difficulty summoning equally compelling examples to justify the need for an overarching theory. The only other examples he offers are Project Plowshare, the idea of engineering giant construction projects (such as artificial harbors and new canals) with nuclear bombs; the Superconducting Supercollider, a gigantic and never-built particle accelerator; and the “100 Year Starship,” a fanciful attempt to create a space vehicle to travel to the stars. But none of these projects ever got off the drawing board; none consumed significant resources or experienced actual failure, because none were ever tried; and none took a single human life. So one might ask, do these examples fit the author’s definition of a pathological technology, or did he craft his very specific definition to fit the examples he was able to summon?
But there is no doubt that Regis has put his finger on a significant reason for the public’s intense, enduring, and perhaps otherwise inexplicable devotion to the airship: their magical quality.
And perhaps that is a form of delirium after all.