Today, an old story about the danger of success.
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.
Surely no activity exposes
the unpredictibility of technology quite the way
war does. For in war we try, again and again, to
predict what a new technology -- the latest secret
weapon -- will do in the near short term. We're
almost always wrong.
The grandest and most dramatic machine of 1914 was
surely the great airship. Those new engines of
Count Zeppelin's fertile mind were stunning by any
measure. Large as an ocean ship and four times as
fast, they struck a chord in our hearts.
Then the guns of August, 1914! When WW-I began,
Germany converted airships to bombers. Two
Zeppelins reached Yarmouth in January, 1915. They
damaged the town square, killed four people and
wrecked some small buildings. The next month
Germany tried again and lost two Zeppelins in a
storm over Denmark.
It wasn't until Sept. 8, 1915, that Germany had its
new bomber tactics under control. That night, four
dirigibles rose up over the North Sea and made for
London. Their prime target was, of all things, the
Bank of England. The raid did great damage to
civilian property and left 109 casualties in its
Official English reports made light of the damage.
But a German spy got hold of a secret report. It
said the airships flew too high for English planes
to reach or for searchlights to hold them. The
damage had been far greater than they'd let on.
Germany was delighted. They didn't see that there
was much more to it. They poured resources into
airships and expanded tactics. For example, they
invented an observer capsule they could lower
thousands of feet while the airship lurked in cloud
That was a nasty assignment. One observer was
dashed against a cliff. Another was jetisoned when
the dirigible suffered a gas leak and a stuck
winch. They cut the cable just after the sinking
ship had lowered the capsule until it struck earth.
The observer tumbled free and spent the next two
months dodging the English, living in barns,
stealing food. He actually breathed a sigh of
relief when he was finally caught.
So, as Germany was fueled by the illusion of
success, better planes finally reached dirigible
altitudes. Defense technologies improved faster
than attack technologies. Germany paid a terrible
price as she kept flinging ill-fated dirigibles at
Those Zeppelins foreshadowed the horror and
futility of bombing to come. They did more damage
than history books tell. But, like the Battle of
Britain in 1941, or the bombing of Hanoi in the
'70s, they awoke a terrible resolve in the enemy
In the end, Germany failed. And her failure was
cast, right away, in that deceptive success over
London -- on Sept. 8, 1915.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds