UNHAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO YOU! THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COMMEMORATES THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
Seventy-five years and two days ago, on May 6, 1937 at 7:25 PM, the German zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg ignited into flames and was destroyed during its attempted landing at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937. Today’s blog post commemorates that tragedy, but also celebrates the history of the German rigid airships as seen through the Wolfsonian library’s collection of zeppelin ephemera.
Our library actually holds a large collection of materials dealing with zeppelins, including an old paper model with movable flaps that permit the viewer to see inside the inner workings of the early rigid airships.
Many of the printed paper artifacts in the library illustrate the Graf Zeppelin and German airships other than the infamous Hindenburg.
STEREOGRAPH VIEWER FOR THE GRAF ZEPPELIN
The tragic 1937 flight of the Hindenburg occurred during the company’s second year of commercial service, as it had inaugurated commercial flights from Europe to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil the previous year.
The Hindenburg, having left Frankfurt on the evening of May 3, traveled through the air at a speed of 80 mph, and despite some delay due to headwinds, completed the first transatlantic leg of its round trip flight, passing over Boston in the morning of May 6. Learning that thunderstorms were rolling by the docking site in New Jersey, the captain of the rigid airship took advantage of the further delay to glide leisurely over Manhattan and the Jersey Shore in the afternoon while waiting for the storm clouds to pass.
Although there were now airplanes capable of crossing the Atlantic at greater speed, the planes were small, the rides often bumpy, and passengers (like today) were for the majority of the flight confined to their seats. Travel by airship, on the other hand, offered passengers the luxurious accommodations they had come to expect aboard ocean liners.
The Hindenburg (filled with hydrogen gas) had been carrying 36 passengers and a crew of 61 when it exploded; thirty-five perished in the fire or from the fall to earth, with another unfortunate killed among the ground crew who had been working the mooring lines.
Although the Graf Zeppelin had chalked up more than a million miles of safe passage, including the first circumnavigation of the globe by an airship, the Hindenburg disaster greatly undermine public confidence in travel by lighter-than-air ships. American news services had dispatched reporters to cover the landing, and Herbert Morrison’s famous eyewitness radio report of the disaster, (part of which was dubbed to accompany newsreel footage released the following day), did much to contribute to the demise of airship travel.
Since the time of the disaster, many theories have been put forward to explain the explosion that engulfed the rigid airship, ranging from blaming the fire on a hydrogen leak, a static spark, lightning, engine failure, incendiary paint, a fuel leak, and even resorted to scapegoating a crewman as a saboteur. The latter conspiracy theory was popularized in the 1960s and 1970s by the publications of Who Destroyed the Hindenburg? by A. A. Hoehling, and Michael MacDonald Mooney’s The Hindenburg, who championed the sabotage hypothesis afterwards picked up by the Hollywood film, The Hindenburg.