success and failure

Guten Morgan from Friedrichshafen,    
It’s funny how something can go from an absolute symbol of technical success one day to the exact opposite the next day. The Zeppelin has this dubious distinction.

Yesterday, we visited the Zeppelin museum in Friedrichshafen on the picturesque Bodensee in Southern Germany. It’s here that the zeppelins were manufactured in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Before the Hindenberg disaster of 1937, it was a “masterpiece of German engineering skill”. One day later they were kaput. 

   Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin developed the zeppelin and attained stupendous success and great personal acclaim in the doing.  The zeppelins were the first dirigible airship and were developed without any doubt with war in mind but their big success came as passenger vehicles. The Nazis also used them for propaganda.

Bodensee, Germany

     During the first half of the 20th century the zeppelins were the fastest means of passenger transport across the Atlantic. It was unquestionably a mode of transport for the rich only but it had a much bigger effect on the psyche of everybody who saw them. The passenger/crew ratio was roughly 1:1 and the rooms were decked out with all the modern conveniences and the finery associated with opulence of the highest order. The zeppelin museum in Friedrichshafen on the Bodensee has some of these fineries reproduced for our perusal today. 

6th of May, 1937

   On 6 May, 1937 the story of the zeppelin changed inexorably. The Hindenberg (the biggest zeppelin ever produced at 245 metres long) caught fire as it approached to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey. This was a complete disaster for the company, partly because of the spectacular nature of the conflagration. The disaster brought the abrupt end to the commercial enterprise of passenger journeys across the Atlantic via the airship.

 Within two years the Pan American World Airways was trialling passenger aircraft across the same routes. Overnight, the zeppelin went from symbol of technical success to symbol of failure. 

   There had been crashes before the Hindenberg. After all, they were used in World War One and had been shot down many times. There had also been civilian crashes, too. The huge airship had done 63 intercontinental journeys prior to May 1937. On that fateful day, there were 97 on board The Hindenberg. 13 passengers, 22 crewmen and one ground staff worker were killed.

“oh, the humanity . . .”

Perhaps the reason the service finished abruptly after the Hindenberg disaster was the fact that – for the first time ever – there were photographers and cinematographers on the scene to record the event. This was the first colour photography of an on-the-spot news event ever. This was also the moment of that famous radio commentary: “Oh, the humanity . . .”. It was probably the spectacular fire and its indelible image which ended the commercial enterprise. 

showjumping near Freiburg

   The cult of the zeppelin has engendered thousands of artifacts, most of which are on show today in the zeppelin museum. These include paintings, postage stamps, novels, merchandise and all sorts of “kitsch of all kinds” (museum’s words). 

  It’s an interesting story of how something can go from symbol of stupendous success to absolute failure in one day. I doubt whether there has ever been an example quite like it, before or since. 

  Auf Wiedersehen from Friedrichshafen


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