Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2571
INTERCITY DIRIGIBLE SERVICE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, how about intercity dirigible service? 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.

The first two transAtlantic flights were both made in 1919. Alcock and Brown flew a plane from Newfoundland to Ireland, but the British flew their R34 dirigible a lot further and against the Westerlies, all the way from Scotland to Long Island. For the next eighteen years, airplanes struggled to set distance records, while dirigibles made much longer flights look easy. Dirigibles seemed destined to provide long-distance service in the 20th century.

A series of accidents eventually doomed them -- last of which was the fiery 1937 Hindenburg crash. But, in the meantime, some people had also begun looking to dirigibles for quite another kind of service: for intercity transport.

Now consider: dirigibles seldom came down to earth. Instead, they moored on tall towers. By then, skyscrapers had sprouted in our big cities. Surely they could provide mooring for dirigibles.

Trick photography image of dirigible mooring on the Empire State Building The first Empire State Building design barely exceeded the height of the Chrysler Building. But, as it rose, the financier behind it, John J. Raskob, looked at it and said, "It needs a hat!" So designers tacked on a 200-foot tower. When they did, one-time governor Al Smith boldly announced that it wouldn't just be decorative; it would also serve as a dirigible mooring mast.

We think of that tower and remember King Kong's last stand. But what about reality? A small airship did manage to tie on to it for three minutes after a half-hour struggle. But when we see photos of dirigibles tied to masts, our eyes often miss the many mooring lines that tie it to the ground. Without ground lines, any wind at all makes mooring impossible. Mooring at the Empire State building mast was a poor idea, quietly forgotten. The tower did find effective use as base for high radio and television antennas. And -- that observation deck has served so many movies: An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, as well as King Kong.

But reality has a hard time resisting our dreams. Historian James Chiles writes about the way dirigibles have driven expectation. And one expectation was for dirigibles to ferry us about our large cities, mooring at this building or that.

Aerial pioneer Santos Dumont actually flew his small airship La Baladeuse between central Paris and his suburban home. Others managed similar stunts -- just enough to keep feeding the idea. President Franklin Roosevelt actually invested money in a plan to create intercity dirigible freight service.

La Baladeuse

Chiles describes our present-day subculture of dirigible advocates. I suppose I even count myself among them. After all, new ideas often do turn folly into reality. James Watt thought the steam locomotive would be impractical. The Wright Brothers doubted that airplanes would ever serve passenger traffic. Still, even after a lifetime of watching invention thread its way around obstacles, I don't expect I'll ever catch a dirigible ride downtown.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


J. R. Chiles HindenPunk. Invention and Technology, Winter 2010, pp. 8-14.

See also the History.com early commercial air transport, the Empire State Buildings site dealing with its history, and the Wikipedia article on mooring masts.

Images: Classic trick photo of dirigible moored on Empire State Building, source unknown. Santos Dumont in La Baladeuse, and R34 landing in Mineola, Long Island, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

R34
The British dirigible R34 landing at Mineola, Long Island, in 1919.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.