Skip to main content
No. 1335:

Today, we ride airships. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Powered flight takes two very different forms: heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air. Heavier-than-air flight has developed steadily, but lighter-than-air transportation seems, for the moment, to have come and gone. The grand hotels that buoyed gently through the skies in the early 20th century have completely vanished. Little more than advertising blimps survive.

The first successful powered balloon flight was made by the French steam-engine designer Giffard in 1852. He mounted a three-horsepower steam engine of his own design on a 147-foot-long balloon and chuffed away at six miles per hour on a three-hour ride over the suburbs of Paris. Experimental powered balloon flights continued for the next fifty years. Oddly enough, many of those experiments took place in the still wild west of central California.

Then in 1900 Henry Deutsch, a French financier, offered a 100,000-franc prize to the first person who could fly the 14-mile course from the Paris Aero Club around the Eiffel Tower and back in thirty minutes. The two leading contenders were the young Brazilian, Santos-Dumont, living in Paris, and the German, Count von Zeppelin.

Santos-Dumont, who just barely won the prize in 1901, soon lost hope for lighter-than-air flight. "To propel a dirigible balloon through the air," he complained "is like trying to push a candle through a brick wall." He turned to heavier-than-air flight and, in 1906, was the first European to fly an airplane.

But Count von Zeppelin went on to develop the rigid dirigible into a glorious machine. He was flying passengers by 1910 and achieving remarkable popularity in Germany. The public, in its huge enthusiasm, completely forgave Zeppelin's spectacular failures. The public also seriously overrated the effectiveness of his vulnerable bombing dirigibles during WW-I.

And so, after the war, Zeppelin could begin transoceanic service with really grand airships. The grandest of these was the Hindenburg. Completed in 1936, it was just a little shorter than the Queen Mary. It served fifty passengers and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in two and a half days. This two-story flying hotel had staterooms, a lounge, a promenade, a dining room that offered venison and roast gosling -- all the amenities anyone might think of.

When the Hindenburg caught fire and burned in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, that put an end to the great dirigibles. Nobody realized that nothing can burn in hydrogen, and the real culprit was the Hindenburg's fabric, soaked in flammable acetone-based lacquer and aluminum particles. Santos-Dumont, it seemed, had made the right choice. Rather than tackle the tractable problems of making airships safe, people abandoned them and went with the airplane.

But who, crammed in like a sardine on a transatlantic jet and suffering jet lag, doesn't look back at the gentle elegance of these quiet monsters and grieve that hasty decision?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. (Theme Music)

(Theme music)

Archbold, R., and Marschall, K., The Hindenburg: An Illustrated History. Toronto, Ontario: Madison Press Books, 1994. This is a greatly revised version of Episode 21.


From The Modern Aeronaut, 1901


From the 1910 Cosmopolitan Magazine


From the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica