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Science and technology in the early 20th century were advancing at breakneck speed. The discoveries being made in these areas often caused changes in people’s everyday lives. One aspect of life that changed rapidly during the early 20th century was travel.

Horse-drawn buggies had given way to the automobile; travel across oceans was becoming less popular too as more people chose to travel by Rigid Airships. Rigid Airships are similar to blimps, except they have a metal framework (like a skeleton) that surrounds one or more gas cells. From the beginning of the 20th century (1900) until 1937, these Rigid Airships, which included Zeppelins, flew over 2000 flights, carrying tens of thousands of passengers over a million miles.

Rigid Airships could travel at much greater speeds than even the fastest Ocean Liners, yet passengers could still travel in luxury. Travel across great distances by Airship was becoming more and more popular, until a fatal day in 1937.

Flying in the Lap of Luxury on the Hindenburg

Passengers dined in style within the Hindenburg’s elegant dining room.

The Hindenburg was the pride of Germany’s airship industry. It belonged to Delag, which was the world’s first airline. The Hindenburg’s chief steward was the first ever flight attendant. The Hindenburg was the quickest way to cross the Atlantic Ocean in her day, making the voyage in half the time of even the fastest Ocean Liner.

Passengers could not only travel across large distances quickly, but they could do so in style. Passengers could enjoy gourmet meals in a spacious and luxurious dining room, while listening to music from an aluminum piano. Once mealtime was finished, they could retire to their own private cabins. People could even smoke a cigarette or a cigar in the Hindenburg’s smoke room.

The Fatal Journey

The Hindenburg flying over Manhattan in 1937

On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, the Hindenburg lifted off, bound for Lakehurst, New Jersey. She carried 36 passengers along with 61 crew members and trainees. By noon on May 6th, the Hindenburg had reached Boston and by 3 p.m. she was floating over the skyscrapers of New York City, bound for Lakehurst.

At 4:15 p.m. the Hindenburg’s captain, Max Pruss, received news from Lakehurst that bad weather would have to delay the landing. By 6:00 Pruss was told that the weather had cleared. The Hindenburg began its descent just after 7:00 p.m.

 The Crash

A few minutes after the crew dropped the landing lines, one of the grounds crew, R.H. Ward, noticed what he called a wave-like fluttering on the outer cover of the port side. At 7:25 p.m. the first flames appeared at the top of the hull. The airship burst into flames within seconds, falling over 200 feet in just a few seconds. All told, 13 passengers, 21 crew members, and one member of the grounds crew lost their lives. Miraculously 62 people survived but many of the survivors suffered serious injuries.

American Radio Announcer Herb Morrison had come to Lakehurst to record the Hindenburg’s mooring for NBC.  Stunned by the sudden turn of events, Morrison exclaimed “Oh the Humanity!” when he saw the Hindenburg go down in flames (this phrase is used by Americans even today, although it is usually as a joke). The recording of Morrison’s commentary was flown to New York, where it was broadcast as America’s first ever coast-to-coast radio news broadcast.

The Aftermath

The China Clipper M-130 flies over San Francisco

Investigators were originally worried that someone had sabotaged the Hindenburg, but they eventually found that this wasn’t the case. It was finally decided that the Hindenburg disaster was caused by an electrical spark that ignited leaking Hydrogen, setting the Airship in flames. The cause of the leaking Hydrogen (which was what Ward noticed when he saw the fluttering hull) remains a mystery to this day.

The crash of the Hindenburg marked the end of an era for the Rigid Airship. There had been other Airship disasters before the Hindenburg, but the Hindenburg disaster was the first such crash to be recorded on film. While the film of the Hindenburg, along with Morrison’s dramatic commentary on the event, may have caused the public to lose faith in travel by Rigid Airships, there was another reason for the demise of the Airship. Just a few years earlier, in 1935, Pan American Airways’ M-130 China Clipper had made a 2,400 mile flight across the Pacific Ocean. Travel by airplane was proving to be a faster and safer way to travel, albeit much less elegant (especially in modern times!).

Hindenburg Fun Facts

  • In an effort to save themselves, some of the passengers jumped out of the windows of the Hindenburg; some survived but others were not so lucky
  • The Hindenburg was almost named after Adolf Hitler. The president of the Zeppelin Company that built the Hindenburg was anti-Nazi though. He named it after a former German President
  • The entire disaster took less than one minute. By some accounts, the whole crash took place in only 32 seconds
  • A one-way ticket on the Hindenburg from Germany to the United States cost $400 in 1936