Today, do you suppose you'll ever get to
ride in a dirigible? 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.
Four government agencies met
back in 1975 -- NASA, the FAA, the Navy, and the
Department of Transportation. They held a workshop
to reassess lighter-than-air flight. The meeting
took place 39 years after the German zeppelin
Hindenburg burned at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and
tolled the death knell for commercial airships.
The Hindenburg disaster branded hydrogen as
unsafe for buoying these great whales into the sky.
Actually what'd been so murderously flammable was
the Hindenburg's acetate-soaked fabric covering. But hydrogen took the rap, and it had
to be replaced with helium. On the eve of WW-II,
we controlled the world supply of helium;
Germany couldn't get it, and dirigibles went out of
The 1975 workshop didn't just ask whether these
gentle monsters should be made to fly again. It
also brought to light a stunning array of potential
extensions of the old technology -- hybrid airships
with airfoil-shaped bodies to add lift in flight;
small blimps for urban transport; airships with
different shapes; blimps to
move large, heavy items that won't fit in
airplanes. It dealt with airships for all payloads,
ranges, and speeds.
The workshop concluded that the potential for
airships was enormous. But it also pointed out that
economic feasibility couldn't be determined in a
paper study. People, it said, must bite the bullet
and attempt commercial ventures to answer that
A quarter century later, we see occasional blimps,
and no dirigibles, in the sky. Many entrepreneurs
responded to the challenge and took the risk. But
few who tried to create new lighter-than-air
technologies have had much success. Today's skies
are filled with advertising blimps. The Navy, which
gave up rigid airships in the early 1960s, flirted
with the idea again in the 1980s. Then they gave it
up a second time. Others have tried to start
sight-seeing airship services.
It's the big rigid dirigibles that we dream about.
And they have to be built longer than a football
field to get a low enough weight-to-volume ratio.
The twentieth century began with stately zeppelins
crossing the Atlantic and passengers dining in
quiet palatial elegance. Can that reemerge in the
21st century? The answer isn't clear. Airships,
with their inherently slow speeds, pit our craving
for graceful elegance against our impatience. They
lay schedules open to the mercy of changing winds.
The dirigible wrote a strange chapter in the
history of technology. It's a beautiful machine
that's come and gone, but which could yet return.
Technology seldom does that. However, I suspect the
dirigible was killed neither by the Hindenburg
disaster nor by impracticality. Rather, we were
distracted by the airplane and by WW-II. The
potential is still there, and perhaps our children
will, once again, get to ride new dirigibles in the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds