The item’s owner, Timothy Fugmann, contacted me in September, 2007, to ask for my assistance in identifying the artifact. Since I did not recognize the object, I made some inquiries.
History Detectives concluded that the item was likely taken from the crash site of the Hindenburg.
Were they mistaken?
The Response from Friedrichshafen
I submitted detailed photographs to Jürgen Bleibler and Barbara Waibel from the Zeppelin Museum and Luftschiffbau Zeppelin archives. Both Mr Bleibler and Ms Waibel told me that they had never seen an instrument of that type before, and I forwarded their emails to Mr. Fugmann.
Since Mr Bleibler and Ms Waibel are experts in the field, who are familiar with the wealth of information held in the Zeppelin archives, I told Mr Fugmann that if neither of them recognized the artifact, I doubted it could be from the Hindenburg. I thought the inquiry would likely end there, but the artifact later appeared on History Detectives, whose producers concluded that the item was most likely from the wreckage of the Hindenburg.
The producers of History Detectives made no mention of the doubts raised by the experts in Friedrichshafen (but in fairness to the producers, it is possible Mr. Fugmann did not mention our correspondence).
The Reponse from Tom Crouch of the National Air and Space Museum
History Detectives also contacted Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, who was also unable to identify the object as having come from Hindenburg despite a search of the Air & Space Museum’s Hindenburg files and the National Archives. I contacted Tom, who told me:
“The History Detectives folks asked me to take a look at this thing, and I did. I worked hard to find it in our extensive Hindenburg files, and even searched the National Archives. I could not place it aboard the airship, so they didn’t interview me.
I am sort of pleased to note that the Zeppelin Museum folks could not place it aboard the airship either. At the same time, as I told them, it may well have been aboard, we just don’t know where, and can’t find a photo of it in place.”
Could this really have been unscrewed from the Hindenburg’s wreckage?
One other question, which was also not explored by the producers of History Detectives, is that the item seems to have been carefully unscrewed from wherever it was attached, with the screws then reinserted. This did not seem consistent with the information Mr Fugmann provided to me about the item having been surreptitiously stolen from the accident scene; carrying off a scorched spoon or piece of girder from the wreckage is one thing, but carefully unscrewing an instrument from the ship’s control car seems like quite another matter (with regard the time it would have taken to remove the object from its mounting, the likelihood of doing so unobserved, and the potential penalties for removing an object that any thief would have assumed might be important in the investigation of the crash).
Nor did the producers of History Detectives do a lot of research into the manufacturer of the object, C.P. Goerz. Goerz was best known as a maker of cameras and lenses, and also other optics (especially for the military), but the firm also made calculators and aeronautical instruments, including altimeters for WWI zeppelins (see photo). However, Goerz was merged with other firms to create Zeiss Ikon in 1926, and whether the company continued to use the name “Goerz” on items made after 1926 was not explored by the producers of History Detectives; reader comments on this question are welcomed.
Indications that suggest the object might have been from an airship
On the other hand, in support of the possibility that the item was used on an airship. As my friend Rick Zitarosa, the extremely knowledgeable historian of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, pointed out during the History Detectives episode, the speed values on the instrument roughly match the speed of an airship.
And if the lower scale (“stopping time in seconds”) represents the time it takes for a dropped object to reach the ground, the 5-20 second range roughly approximates the typical altitude of an airship. (Without accounting for friction, an object will fall approximately 400’/120m in 5 seconds, and approximately 2100’/700m in 12 seconds.) And the stopping time increments decrease as the values increase, which also makes sense if it were used to measure the height of a dropped object, since objects fall with increasing velocity (until reaching terminal velocity, of course).
So could this item have been used to check altitude? (It is known that German airships used barometric altimeters, a sounding device known as an echolot or echolade, and the simple technique of dropping objects and timing their fall.) Or could the item have been used to measure drift, or as a way to double-check ground speed?
Or could this have been used to calculate the forward distance traveled by a dropped bomb, from a World War I military or naval zeppelin, perhaps? (There might have originally been a grid imprinted on the clear panel that has broken away from the face of the instrument.)
Of course, even if this instrument were designed for use on an airship, whether it was taken from the wreckage of the Hindenburg is another matter.
Additional Photographs and Information About the Object
The following photographs and information are presented so that readers can examine this artifact more closely themselves, and in greater detail than is possible from watching the episode of History Detectives.[A transcript of the episode can be downloaded as a pdf here.]
The instrument is approximately 15cm wide x 9cm high x 4cm deep. The scale at the top of the instrument is labeled: "Geschwindigkeit für Meßtrecke gleich der Höhe." The values range from 40 to 160 Km/Std (kilometers per hour) and from 20 to 80 Sm/Std (knots [Seemeile per hour]) The scale at the bottom of the instrument is labeled: "Gestoppte Zeit in Sekunden." The values range from 4 to 20 in increments of decreasing size. To the left is a small box marked "Höhe" (height or altitude). The manufacturer was "C.P. Goerz, Berlin."