MAY 06, 2022 10:00 AM PDT

This Day in Science: The Hindenburg, What Went Wrong?

While the 1930s was a period of historic worldwide economic depression, it also brought with it technological advancements, particularly in the transportation industry. The completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 which was the longest bridge span in the world at the time, the steam liner era was beginning and the diesel electric locomotive was created, boats started to be used and seen a lot more, and air travel was starting to gain notoriety.

One such method of air travel during this period was the zeppelin, which is a type of rigid airship designed in the late 19th and in the early 20th century by the Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin. While the Wright Brothers often take credit with their historic first flight of an airplane in 1903, lighter than air airships were in the skies decades before, and zeppelins began with civilian use in 1909. Airships were thought to be the future of commercial aviation until a tragic fall on May 6, 1937.

This was the day that the airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, burst into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew members. There are several theories for the cause of the explosion, but it is believed to have emanated from a spark igniting the hydrogen core, causing the airship to burst into flames, and rapidly falling 200 feet to the ground as the hull of the airship was incinerated within seconds. This tragic event was immortalized by radio announcer Herb Morrison in a famous on-the-scene description in which he emotionally declared, “Oh, the humanity!” This incident marked the beginning of the end for airship travel, as lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favor afterwards.

The Hindenburg had completed 62 trips before this tragic day that made its flights seem almost routine. However, this historic and tragic incident is a reminder that nothing is routine, and while technological advancements can make our lives better, tragedy can still happen at a moment’s notice.

As always, keep doing science & keep learning history!

Sources: History.com, Life in the 1930s, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, Zeppelin History (1), Zeppelin History (2), Air Charter Service, History.com (2), Airships.net, Live Science, The History Press

MS in Geological Sciences
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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