Today, airplanes and Krupp guns. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
World War I began in 1914.
Europe had been rattling its sabers for years, and
it was clear that part of the war would be fought
in the sky. But the airplane had hardly been
invented by then, and it posed little threat. A
Zeppelin was another matter. As long as an ocean
liner, and moving four times as fast, it was a
vast, imposing machine.
So magazine articles began showing fanciful
pictures of imagined aerial
warfare. Many of them included airplanes, along
with dirigibles. But that was such a stretch that
it made the predictions look like science fiction.
Primitive airplanes were evolving rapidly, but they
were still unconvincing as war machines.
Whatever the public made of all this speculation,
the German military took it seriously. They
contracted with Count von Zeppelin to build
military dirigibles, and he began production in
Then a strange thing happened. Germany's Krupp
weapons factory had long been a central pillar of
German nationalism, fiercely loyal to whatever
regime was in power. Krupp brought an exhibit of
anti-Zeppelin guns to the Frankfurt
International Aircraft Fair only three years after
Zeppelin began making military dirigibles. They
were field howitzers, modified to shoot almost
The people who snapped up those new weapons were
Germany's anticipated enemies -- France,
England, and Russia. Actually, it would be a long
time before ground fire had any real hope of
hitting high-altitude, fast-moving airships. It'd
take far fancier fire control than the sights on
conventional field artillery.
However, the Krupps simultaneously unveiled a
gigantic 94-ton mortar with a foot-and-a-half
muzzle. It was soon nicknamed Fat Bertha
or Big Bertha (literally Dicke
Bertha), in deference to the beautiful Bertha
She had inherited the Krupp works in 1902 at the
age of only sixteen. It was unthinkable for the
titular head of this piece of the German empire to
be a woman. So Kaiser Wilhelm himself helped to
broker a quick marriage between Bertha and one
Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach. At the wedding,
Wilhelm announced that Gustav would now use the
last name of Krupp.
Twelve years later, war: Big Berthas tore Belgium
apart and then reduced much of the French landscape
to mud. High-altitude Zeppelins did a lot of damage
until improved airplanes caught up with them.
Bombing passed from dirigibles to airplanes, and
war became ghastly beyond imagining. Bertha Krupp
resigned herself to the name Big Bertha,
for, after all, that was a part of her job.
She was still alive after the next war, when her
son Alfred was tried at Nüremberg for his
brutal use of slave labor. He got off, because
America now needed him to rearm Germany against the
threat of Russia. And, as we all looked for ICBMs
in the sky, iron guns upon the ground continued to
be the substance of the ongoing game of war.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
C. Dienstbach and T. R. MacMechen, The Aerial
Battleship. The McClure Magazine, August
423, pp. 422-434.
W. Manchester, The Arms of Krupp:
1587-1968. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
(from the 1909 McLure's Magazine)
, by Orville Houghton Peets
(from the 1918 Century
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.