A while back, I read a fascinating book by Ed Regis called Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the birth of pathological technology. The book caught my interest because it was about large dirigibles and the ill-fated Hindenburg, which has long been an interest of mine. I find dirigibles to be fascinating things. In fact, I’ve ridden on one! Actually that’s only partly true. What I rode was one of the Good Year blimps, probably a GZ-20 class, back in the 1970’s. They weren’t dirigibles, but blimps (semi-rigid balloons). But close enough.
I can’t remember the details of my blimp ride at all well, given my age at the time. But I’m pretty sure that the one I rode was the Mayflower, shown here. It used to visit Cortland, New York, once or twice a year, as a perk for people who worked for the Brockway Motor Company. I think most people got rides through some sort of lottery. I managed to get my ride because my father made a few strategically timed telephone calls to some friends, and one of the scheduled passengers didn’t show up that day.
Even though I’ve always liked large airships, I can’t ignore what the engineering and the math say: they are not practical. Count Ferdinand Zeppelin spent most of his life promoting these vessels as having all kinds of applications, both military and civil. But history proved that they aren’t suitable for most tasks. Airships are big, hard to handle, expensive to operate and maintain, and have a surprisingly small payload capacity for something so large.
Ultimately the airship proved to be a niche technology, but within that niche it has a good track record. In recent years airships have proven useful for aerial surveillance, search and rescue operations, and weather monitoring. They have also proven to be great for radio and television communication relay applications, such as news coverage after a major hurricane, and providing awesome television coverage of major sporting events. But for most applications that deal with actual transportation of goods and passengers, the airship isn’t a viable contender. In fact, according to Regis, it never was.
He called it a “pathological technology.” When he calls something a “pathological technology,” he’s essentially saying, in a polite way, that certain technologies are bat-shit crazy, and we as a species should have never seriously considered experimenting with them. Let alone try to implement or develop them! And if we foolishly have implemented them, then we should come to our senses and abandon the technology at the earliest possible opportunity
Regis gave four criteria for the dubious distinction as “pathological technology.” Roughly, they are:
- The technology usually embraces something exceedingly large, either in effect or in physical size.
- The technology creates a form of emotional fixation, bordering on hypnotic enthrallment, on its proponents.
- Proponents constantly ignore and downplay the risks, downsides, shortcomings, negative consequences, and outright dangers associated with using the technology.
- The benefits of the technology are ultimately dwarfed by the costs.
He is quick to point out that this isn’t a litmus test type of situation. One or more of these traits can be applied to almost every technology that has ever be used. These conditions exist on a continuum. It’s when a given technology falls into the extreme of all four characteristics that it can be considered pathological.
Anyway, Regis gives a case for why large airships, or zeppelins, were a pathological technology. He discusses the history leading up to it, and ultimately puts much of the “blame” for the technology on Count Zeppelin himself.
It should be noted that the Count did not hold the patent for rigid airships. That belonged to a Frenchmen, Joseph Spiess. Zeppelin did popularize and refine the technology, however.
There is a strong belief that much of Zeppelin’s motivation stemmed from the fact that a Frenchman made the first viable dirigible design, and the Count wasn’t going to be bested by a Frenchman. I’ll let psychohistorians deal with that question.
Count Zeppelin had a vision for the giant airships which was very different from what they became. He never imagined them as the flying luxury liners which became the claim to fame. Count Zeppelin saw the airship as a weapon of mass destruction. To him they were giant military leviathans, bristling with weapons, descending from the sky and leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. And when they were finished laying waste to the countryside before them, they would land, and up to 100 angry Prussian commandos would pour forth from the belly of the beast, to continue the carnage. The image sounds like something from a steampunk novel, and you have to admit it does sound cool. It was so cool, that enough people in 1890’s Germany agreed with the idea, and the Count received the venture capital he needed to develop his giant flying killing machine. According to Regis, this was a fatal mistake.
Sadly for the Count, physics agrees with Regis. When dealing with lighter than air aircraft, the ratio of cargo to lifting mass has always been top-heavy. Consider a hot-air balloon. In order to lift a payload of perhaps a half dozen people, you need a balloon the height of a five story building! What’s worse, this ratio doesn’t scale nicely. Increasing the payload mass increases the lifting mass requirement at an almost geometric rate.
At the time, the only way to make a flying machine was to make it lighter than air. Remember that the airplane didn’t show up until 1903, and it wasn’t taken seriously for another twenty years. The Count’s dream ship would have been beyond gigantic. Weapons are heavy, and so are fully equipped soldiers. Add the necessary crew for such a big ship, and the weight of the ship itself, and you have one honking big balloon! The payload of the Count’s machine would have to be equal to or greater than a modern jumbo jet. Note that the largest airship ever built, the Hindenburg, had a payload capacity only one quarter of what the Count envisioned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Count Zeppelin’s airships were a problem from the get go. They had a tendency to weather-vane under the slightest of air currents. They were hard to handle in almost every weather condition. Their light metal frames tended to bend, buckle, and even snap if the ship wasn’t balanced right, and keeping those things balanced was a problem in itself. Changes in air pressure or temperature tended to change the craft’s buoyancy, so sometimes one end of the ship would go up while the other started to fall. And so on.
Oh yes, and there was one other big problem that supporters of the Zeppelin Company constantly glossed over or downplayed. The only lifting gas that was easily available and affordable at the time was hydrogen. Hydrogen, largely because of it’s low atomic weight, is very susceptible to changes in air conditions and temperature, which created the aforementioned problems with even buoyancy.
And I don’t think I need to mention hydrogen’s nasty property of catching fire for the smallest of causes! There was one case of a spark from two support cables rubbing against one another within the body of a zeppelin, ignited a small leak from one of the hydrogen cells. You can probably guess how that turned out.
The only other contender for a lifting gas was helium, which isn’t as fussy in terms of atmospheric conditions. But it doesn’t have as much lift, and until after World War I it was both formidably expensive, and very hard to acquire.
So, zeppelins were a technical problem, and no matter what anyone said at the time, they were inherently dangerous! But they still captured the imagination of the general public. The sight of those long, flying whales lazily floating across the sky was just too darn cool to ignore! So the quest for Count Zeppelin’s dream ship continued, far longer than it should have.
From 1900 until World War I, rigid airships emerged from Zeppelin’s facilities in Friedrichshafen with regularity. Most of them ended up getting torn apart by weather, going up in flames, or both. But the airship had captured the imagination and national pride of Germany, so they kept working on perfecting the design.
Count Zeppelin died in 1917, before the end of World War I. His airships were used during the war, mostly as bombers, but they never came close to the grand plans he had for them. In fact, World War I pretty much sent the notion of a flying military leviathan to a fiery grave. A new type of flying machine, the airplane, was showing far more promise as a military device than the airship ever could.
If airships are pathological, then why did they last so long?
One thing that Regis seems to have either overlooked or glossed over, is that when airships first appeared, they did provide something unique: they made it possible for people to fly. When they first appeared, there wasn’t another technology that could do that. The dangers of airships weren’t unknown by any means. But whenever one of them came to a tragic end, the general response was to try tweaking the technology so as to avoid a repeat of the problem. Also, a lot of people had invested considerable resources in making airships work, and a large number of people had jobs that depended on them. And again, without airships, it wasn’t possible for humans to fly.
The airplane changed the equation, but not right away. Airplanes have problems as well, and there were points in the development of the airplane where they were seen as equally bad-shit crazy as the hydrogen and helium filled leviathans. However, when airplane technology was tweaked to deal with a specific problem, viable solutions ultimately presented themselves. And gradually, the technology improved. The problems with airships generally stemmed from the lifting gases, of which there were still only two choices (one that easily caught fire, and one that was very expensive). And in order to lift anything off the ground, at least in a usable quantity, you need a very large quantity of lifting gas. The size requirement, and the unforgiving nature of physics and chemistry, made it impossible to change that. Airplanes gradually became safer, more efficient, and more versatile. Airships, by contrast, stagnated. So when the mighty Hindenburg met it’s fiery end on May 6, 1937, that was the end for airships. The risk/benefit ratio had ultimately resolved in favor of the airplane, and even the most hardened supporters of airships were forced to throw in the proverbial towel. The rest is aviation history.
But as for airships being a pathological technology, we can only say that in hindsight. During their heyday, airships were an accepted technology that fulfilled a specific need. They did demonstrate the potential of air travel, and for many years they were how it was done. It’s only when we look back through the lens of experience and history that we can see the design problems inherent with large airships.
Perhaps there should be a fifth condition to Regis’s test. Namely, if a technology meets a demonstrated need, and no viable alternative exists, it can’t be considered pathological.
Under this added condition, giant, rigid airships didn’t become a pathological technology until the airplane had advanced enough to replace them. That then begs a new question: was the giant airship a pathological technology from the start, or, is it just another technology that outlived it’s usefulness?
Later it the book, Regis talks about three other technologies that he considered pathological, and unlike airships, I tend to agree with him on those. I’ll be looking at these three monsters soon.
Regis, Ed. Monsters: the Hindenburg disaster and the birth of pathological technology. New York: Basic Books, c2015.