As often happens in the aftermath of organizing an exhibition, one comes across an item (either a new acquisition, or a poorly catalogued artifact) that would have been a great addition to the show had one only known of its existence sooner. And so as a postscript to the zeppelin exhibit that Dr. Harsanyi curated and which has just come down, I thought I would invite him to discuss just such an item in relation to the exhibit.


Here is Dr. Harsanyi’s report:

An advertisement in the collection of the Wolfsonian-FIU library boasts that fourteen miles of girders, 5.5 million rivets, 85 miles of steel wire were used in the hangars of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen to build a second, less known, rigid structure airship of the Hindenburg-class. It was registered as LZ 130 and named Graf Zeppelin.  Written both in German and English, it appears that the advertisement was designed primarily for an American audience because the height of the airship is compared to that of the Statue of Liberty.



Its previous namesake, LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin had been retired on June 18, 1937, after nine years of successful service. September 14, 1938 saw the first flight of Graf Zeppelin II, 14 months after the tragic fire that destroyed the Hindenburg.



The design of LZ-130 incorporated a few improvements over the design of the LZ 129 Hindenburg. The passenger decks were completely redesigned to accommodate 40 passengers, compared to the Hindenburg’s 72. (The main source of revenue for the operation of airships resided not in the transportation of paying passengers, but in carrying air mail). The restaurant was moved to the middle of the quarters and the promenade windows were half a panel lower. The cabins became more spacious and had better lighting compared to those of the Hindenburg; four of these were luxury cabins.


Designed by v. Römer, the inside foldout image of this advertisement illustrates and points to the various sections of the airship. It also shows the possible American destinations that were equipped with mooring masts and hangars: New York City / Lakehurst, NJ, the Brazilian cities of Recife and Rio de Janeiro, and Frankfurt in Germany.


Owing to the failure to secure helium as lifting agent, the new Graf Zeppelin used hydrogen to fill its gas envelopes. Learning from the lesson of the Hindenburg, the German government did not authorize flights that would carry paying passengers. In total LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin made thirty flights, most of them over German territory. The longest trip the LZ 130 made was on an espionage mission in August 1939, lasting over 48 hours and covering 4,203 km (2,612 mi). Flying close to the British east coast, its covert mission was to collect information on the British Chain Home radar system. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the hoped for transatlantic flights for which it had been designed were dashed. In April 1940, Hitler’s Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring issued the order to scrap Graf Zeppelin since the metal was needed for other military aircraft. By April 27, work crews had finished cutting up the airships. On May 6, the enormous airship hangars in Frankfurt were leveled by explosives, three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.


Even before the Hindenburg tragedy of 1938 eroded public confidence in commercial transatlantic flights by German zeppelins, the Italians were betting instead on an alternative generation of flying machines—the subject of our latest library exhibit that just went up last week.

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While I was responsible for choosing the themes and curating this new exhibit, all such projects are collective endeavors, so I would like to thank our Exhibition Designer Richard Miltner and his crew of exceptional art handlers Steve Forero-Paz, James Taylor, Carlos Alejandro for their installation work; Lisa Li, Silvia Barisione, and Peter Clericuzio for their editorial vigilance; our Art Director Mylinh Nguyen for her quick work in laying out the text panels; and David Almeida for photographing the selections and putting together the online version of the show.

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Following his march on Rome in October 1922 and ascension to power, Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was determined to revive Italy’s fortunes and transform the nation into a world power. Simultaneously embracing avant-garde Futurist and neo-classical aesthetics, the Fascist regime recycled the power symbols of ancient Rome (the Fasces and Imperial eagle) to imply a rebirth of Roman greatness under Mussolini’s direction.



As part of his strategy to modernize the nation, Mussolini pushed for the development of an independent air force, appointing his heir apparent, Italo Balbo, undersecretary (1926-29) and then Minister of the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (1929-1933).



To generate excitement in air power, Balbo organized airshows and expositions, and also planned (and sometimes led) mass flights across national borders and seas. Balbo focused Italian aviation ambitions on the Savoia Marchetti seaplane, and orchestrated two long-distance Mediterranean cruises by large squadrons of the craft in 1928 and 1929 to test their endurance.


The most recent library exhibit features rare promotional materials designed to capitalize on the popularity of the Minister of the Italian air force’s most ambitious feats: leading squadrons of seaplanes across the Atlantic Ocean to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1930 and to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Italo Balbo and the transatlantic flights by the Savoia Marchetti S.55s were celebrated in periodical covers, posters, postcards, special edition pamphlets, commemorative photographs, and even cigarette and chocolate bar packaging!








During the flights to Brazil and the United States, Balbo was treated like an important diplomat, meeting with the presidents of both republics, and was celebrated in print, parades, and newsreels. The Sioux Indians in the “Indian Village” on display at the Chicago World’s Fair even adopted him in a public ceremony, and their own Chief Blackhorn presented him with a feather headdress and bestowed on him the title “Chief Flying Eagle.”

Italo Balbo’s national profile and popularity in Italy soared as a result of the transatlantic flights, so much so that Mussolini became intensely jealous. Immediately following Balbo’s triumphant return to Italy from the 1933 flight to the Chicago World’s Fair, Mussolini promoted him to the newly coined rank of Air Marshall; just three months later, Il Duce “clipped his wings” by replacing him and appointing him governor of the desert colony of Libya–far from the public eye.


I am  turning the final section of today’s blog post over to Library Assistant Michel Potop who has been accessioning, cataloging, and creating metadata links for some materials that museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. has placed on deposit with us as promised gifts. One of those items deals with the history of aviation leading up to France’s aeronautical industry in the mid-1920s and seems an appropriate complement to our zeppelin and seaplane materials. Here is his report: 

We recently received a set of rare books from our benefactor Mr. Mitchel Wolfson Jr. Among them I discovered and catalogued one produced for the 1926 Paris aviation exhibit.



 In promoting French aviation, the booklet presents a history of aviation from the prism of their own national achievements and goals.  One illustrated page was devoted to the literary dreams of past centuries, as French poet Edmond Rostand has his famous character Cyrano de Bergerac point out six imaginative ways to achieve the conquest of the air. One method he proposed for becoming airborne was aboard a giant mechanical cricket!



The book also describes some of the more “scientific” attempts at achieving flight, such as the early experiments in controlled flight by Besnier, the locksmith from Sable in the twelfth century and  by Jean-Baptiste Dante de la Perouse in the fourteenth century. It also describes the failed attempt by the Marquis of Bacqueville to glide across the Seine, experiments resulting in a successful hydrogen-gas balloon launch by Monsieur Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and the demonstration of the principle of an inclined counter-rotation propeller (key to the development of the helicopter) by Frenchmen Lannoy and Bienvenu in the eighteenth century.




In spite of dream and daring on the part of early aviation inventors and innovators, the only “reliable” flying device at that time remained the hot-air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers a century earlier. It was just such a hot-air balloon that carried the first woman aeronaut Élisabeth Thible into the air. With the invention of the parachute by French physicist Louis-Sébastien Lenormand in 1783, balloons aeronauts had a new means of returning to earth. Jumping to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the book praises the ambition and determination of the French aviators to conquer the skies even as other brave men the world over took their lives in their hands, testing all manner of new flying contraptions.



Other illustrations in the book celebrate the earliest airplanes, such as inventor and engineer Clément Ader’s  “Avion III” (a bat-winged looking contraption) which flew 300 meters in 1897 and entered the record books as the first mechanical flight in human history. Eleven years later, Henri Farman piloted a Voisin biplane to accomplish a full 1 kilometer flight in closed circuit.



While it did not ignore the individual accomplishments of the Wright brothers and other pioneers in aviation around the world, the primary aim of the book was to celebrate and inspire the nationalist and imperial ambitions of Frenchmen working in aviation. Naturally, the book illustrates the Channel crossing  by Louis Blériot on July 25th, 1909.



More than simply celebrating the nation’s aeronautical heritage, other historical exploits and long-distance flights illustrated in the text seem to have been included as a means of demonstrating aerial technology’s role in connecting and holding together France’s overseas empire.




While other nations continued to rely on wood as a major component for their aircraft in the 1920s, the French aviation industry adopted the extensive use of metal components for their airplanes, and to apply assembly-line practices into the manufacturing process.






The desire to fly, to reach the skies and approach the gods, represents an aspiration as old as human consciousness. It can be traced back to the ancient Greek legends of Icarus, to Leonardo De Vinci’s plans for flying machines, to the early flights made by Santos-Dumont. But in the wake of the First World War, what had once been the exclusive domain of inventors and daring individuals had become a governmental priority and national necessity as states entered the competition to build fleets of ever-more efficient flying machines capable of stimulating the domestic economy and military strength of the nation, and of expanding their influence and prestige beyond their borders.

~ by "The Chief" on October 18, 2013.

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