A little earlier this year, I was in Switzerland for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t totally planned. Long story. Sometimes, in one’s life, one just ends up in Switzerland. (This was my sixth time there. Doesn’t that seem like a lot? Anyway.)
I stayed with some friends in Thurgau, up in the north, and one Saturday, they proposed an outing: the Zeppelin Museum. It’s just across Lake Constance, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. And it is wonderful.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a German with a plan. In the late 19th century, he thought airships seemed like a good idea. So he founded a company with his name. The airships were so good that the brand name came to mean this particular kind of airship, with a rigid structure.
The first Zeppelin flight was in 1900; over 100 airships followed. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin LZ127 made a round-the-world trip, showing off the effectiveness of this mode of transportation.
This is a duplicate of a plate that was given to Emperor Hirohito in commemoration of the ship’s stop in Japan.
In the 1930s, airships ran regular service between Germany, Brazil, and the U.S. If you needed to cross the ocean and you had a lot of money, airships were faster than ships–and, remember, airplanes were still in their infancy.
The Zeppelin company’s most famous product was the Hindenburg, which started flying in 1936. It was the pinnacle of Zeppelin production, in both size and luxury. Everything on the Hindenburg was both fancy and lightweight. They had an aluminum piano on some flights. The walls were covered in hand-painted balloon silk. I mean, check out the drinking glasses.
The “DZR” is for Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, the company that was created in 1935 to operate the airships.
The Hindenburg even had a smoking lounge – that’s how luxurious it was. Yes, that seems ridiculous in a ship lifted by hydrogen. That’s why none of the earlier airships allowed smoking. But they’d thought it through pretty carefully; the smoking lounge was under higher air pressure, so that hydrogen leaks couldn’t get in. The only lighter on board was kept by the bartender, who also made sure nobody left with a lit cigarette. And, besides, if you think about it, there are plenty of other sources of ignition on board an airship. Like, you know, the diesel engines.
It wasn’t guaranteed that the Hindenburg would fly with hydrogen. It was actually designed to use helium as the lifting gas. But the U.S. controlled most of the world’s helium, and in 1936, the U.S. was like, um, right, thanks for the offer, Nazi Germany, but we’re actually not going to sell you this gas to lift your ships with useful military applications. Zeppelins had bombed London in 1915. So the ship used hydrogen instead.
The biggest part of the museum is devoted to the Hindenburg, with artifacts and a full-size mockup of one section of the ship. It’s hard to get your head around how big it was. A handy display compares it to an Airbus A-380 (which is even bigger than a 747)–the Zeppelin is about four times as long, and with a much fatter body.
On the left, you can see some of the structure of the airship. I’d never thought about this, but the Hindenburg wasn’t a giant sausage of hydrogen; it had gas bags inside a structure, with a cover on the outside. You can even go inside this model and see cabins and lounges.
The Hindenburg went up in flames in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, as it arrived from Frankfurt. Nobody actually knows how the hydrogen caught fire–there are lots of hypotheses, and plenty of sabotage-related conspiracy theories. The Hindenburg wasn’t even the first airship disaster, but it was the first one to happen in front of newsreel cameras. However it started, that fire ended the age of the airship.
Airships.net is a great source on the Hindenburg and other airships.