It’s time to talk rigids — rigid airships that is.
It’s been more than a century since the modern airship transformed transatlantic travel, using fuel cell technology, that at least for the moment, is very much back in vogue.
Today considered unique in terms of their variety of potential applications, fuel cells can use a wide range of fuels and feedstocks including hydrogen which is being afforded some particularly optimistic forecasts by those, namely OEMs, with skin in the game.
Of the concepts long-gestating in closed-door research departments shrouded in secrecy for months, if not years, how many hark back to previous eras when the political capital necessary for high-cost ventures of research and development, had simply run dry?
The Zeppelin, which came to be commonly used to refer to all rigid airships, were first flown commercially in 1910 by Deutsche Luftschiffaharts, the world’s first airline in revenue service.
By 1928, when a round trip transatlantic ticket cost $3,000 – equivalent to $40,000 today – the Graf Zeppelin was launched and soon set a new long-range voyage record in October.
The largest airship of its kind at 236.6 metres in length, it was designed to carry passengers, and mail to cover the costs. In another first, the Graf Zeppelin used Blau gas fuel for its five engines.
As Blau gas, like propane, is nearly as light as air, it gave the Graf Zeppelin the advantage of not having to vent lift gas, a practice common to other airships, to maintain equilibrium.
The ship’s range, as a result, was extended by 30 hours.
Blau gas was carried in 12 cells in the lower section of 12 of the ship’s 17 gas cell bays, beneath the hydrogen cells also known as the “lift gas cells”.
The ship also carried a supply of gasoline, so that if the ship was heavily burdened, the engines could burn gasoline instead of Blau gas, alleviating the weight without the need to drop ballast.
By August, the Graf Zeppelin had completed a circumnavigation of the globe leaving Lakehurst, New York, at the behest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, one of its chief sponsors, before it took in Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, Los Angeles and returned to Lakehurst 21 days, five hours and 31 minutes later.
It had travelled 49,618 kilometres. On board was reporter, Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay, who, by default, was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air.
In 1929, a group of investors erecting the Empire State Building, had announced that the height of the building would be increased by 200 feet so that a mooring mast for airships could be installed.
Passengers, according to the plan, would exit the airship down a gangplank, and a mere seven minutes later could be on the street, ready to experience everything Manhattan had to offer. Up until then the Chrysler Building had been the tallest building in the world.
The New York Times was the first to dismiss the project as impractical, noting that landings for zeppelins required dozens of ground crew, not to mention hundreds of metres of rope.
“The notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” noted the Times.
A sepia tea-stained photo of the Graf Zeppelin, which had been earmarked to dock on the building, was circulated in 1930, despite it never having done so. As a deep fake, it was something of another first.
The following year an airship did dock on top of the Empire State Building. No one, however, disembarked.
The privately owned dirigible, amid 65 km/h gusts, brought traffic to a standstill for half an hour as “the pilot jockeyed for position in the half-gale about the tower 1,200 feet above the ground,” reported the Times.
The age of the airship came to a crashing halt in a New Jersey field in 1937 when the Hindenburg, the largest zeppelin ever constructed, fuelled by flammable hydrogen, immolated upon landing.
In principle, zeppelins were a technology ordained by the few for the many that proved, like most trends, the reverse.
As many people would have travelled on fixed wing aircraft as paying passengers as those on airships in one tenth of the time it took for the few thousand intrepid voyagers fortunate enough to take in the world from the unique vantage of a ‘giant of the air’. It remains, to this day, a fascinating point in history unlikely to be replicated.
But the age of digital swarms, bots and ChatGPT, is also the age of replicants. In economies starved of new ideas, everything old can be made new again with the right political clout, humanitarian messaging and cultural amnesia.