Passenger Dirigible

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The dirigible is a steerable, powered lighter-than-air vehicle developed soon after the turn of the 20th Century. The brainchild of German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the dirigible has been used for many purposes throughout its existence. First as a war machine, then in the 1920s and 30s as a commercial passenger and freight vehicle, and into the present as a form of brand presence and advertising, most notably with the Goodyear Corporation.

This dossier focuses on the commercial passenger uses of the dirigible. This medium lasted very briefly, thriving in the time between the two World Wars. Despite the vast amount of hype and academic research surrounding dirigibles, many hailing it as the future of passenger aviation, the passenger dirigible did not survive past the second World War. This is mainly attributable to improvements in airplane technology as well as the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, killing 35 people and effectively destroying confidence in the airship as a viable form of transportation.

Empire State Building with Hovering Dirigible

What follows is a discussion of the experience of flying in a passenger dirigible, using both the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg as core examples. Next, this dossier examines a particular relic of this time period, the Empire State Building, and its unusable mooring mast built at the top. Although visible today, it stands as a vision of the future that never came to be.

Dirigibles During the War

Royal Navy Dirigibles in WW1
The rigid airship, although a product of many strands of research and design, is most directly tied to German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the namesake of the Zeppelin Company that produced German airships. Balloons as travel devices had existed earlier, but Zeppelin, during his time serving in both the German Army as well as the American Union during the American Civil War, wished to make the balloons 'dirigible,' meaning a steerable, powered craft. Although a military man by trade, Zeppelin conceived of the dirigible not as a war machine, but as a device "providing long-range transportation for the peaceful service of mankind" (Rosendahl 47). It was the rise of the first World War that prompted his invention to become linked to war.

The use of airships, primarily by Germany, during World War I was met with both respect and fear by the Allied forces. This is most evident in the post-war restrictions placed on German production of airships, as well as the growing expansion of airship production in America and Britain. Following WWI, Allies hoped to, and in many ways succeeded in, crippling Germany's power by forbidding the construction of German airships of ocean-going size. Many German airships used during the war were taken and divvied up by the Allied forces, most being destroyed in the process (Rosendahl 50).

Although Germany eventually was able to return to airship production in a commercial sense, most importantly with the Graf Zeppelin completed in 1928, the long-range effects of the Allied blockade of German research into airships in immense. In fact, one of the possible reasons for the downfall of airships as a viable and more developed transportation in general is this "retarding influence of the Treaty" (Rosendahl 51).

Dirigible Flying Experience

In the post World War 1 context, dirigibles began to take on a completely different meaning: they were not to be viewed as instruments of war and terror, but as the transportation form of the future. In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, the period between World War 1 and World War 2, scholars, naval officers, governments and planners wrote heavily about the possibilities for passenger airship travel. Ultimately, despite the Germans Zeppelin trustees transferring their patents and expertise over to the American Goodyear corporation following the Armistice, and much discussion in the United States about the future of dirigible travel, it was the Germans who truly excelled in the field of passenger dirigible travel (Hunsaker 432-3).

Cross Oceanic Travel

Cover of Advertising brochure "Two and One Half Days to Europe' issued by Deutsche Zeppelin- Reederei, 1936(Zeppelin Decor 49)

The interest in airships as a passenger transportation form was believed to be of particular relevance for cross-oceanic travel (Hunsaker 434). Capable of sustained travel for distances of up to 5,000 miles at about a mile a minute (or faster), the airship could “easily make voyages of three or four thousand miles with a good commercial load” according to Dr Edward Warner of MIT (Warner 391). While the airplane was convenient and cheaper for distances below 1000 miles, it was actually less economical for larger distances as the airplane had to transport large quantities of fuel (Hunsaker 434). Consequently, as C.E Rosendahl, Lieutenant Commander for the U. S. Navy said in 1928, it was widely believed that “the field of long range aerial transport belongs to the airship” ("Lighter-Than-Air Machines" Rosendahl 321).

Passenger Dirigibles and the Steamship

As the new form of cross-oceanic travel, the passenger dirigible, evident simply in it’s popular name “the airship”, took much of it’s identity from steamships, the dominant form of long-distance transportation up to that time. In fact, most scholars note that "life on board [a dirigible] was like life on a transatlantic steamer, except that no one got seasick" (Vaeth 58). While dirigibles traveled much faster than a steamship, and Atlantic crossing times typically ranged from only two to three days (depending, of course, on the wind), the trips were still long enough that much care needed to be given to the comfort of the passengers, from the food they would eat, to where they would socialize, the activities planned, and finally, where they would sleep (Vaeth 48). Hence, the design of the airship, which included a promenade and windows for quality viewing, as well as the attention paid to comfort and luxury, were qualities inherited from the steamship. With the airship, as with the steamship, travel was as much as about the journey as the destination.

Yet the airship was seen as the future of cross-oceanic travel and spiritual successor to the steamship, due to several distinct, often scientifically supported, advantages. Supporters of airships at the time report that there had never been a reported case of seasickness or airsickness aboard the Graf Zeppelin or the Hindenburg. Much like the steamships, airships also had no need for seat or safety-belts nor the restriction of fixed-shut windows as are needed on airplanes. Commercial dirigibles flew at lower levels, thus they did not require having a pressurized cabin (Rosendahl 200).

Scientists even weighed in on the side of dirigibles over steamships and airplanes. Studies by Preston B. Bassett, the vice president in charge of engineering at Sperry Gyroscope Company, released reports about the quality of noise and sound on board an airship versus an aeroplane. He reported that "The quietness of the passengers' quarters on the Hindenburg was one of the greatest surprises to me" (Rosendahl 203). Decibel measurements placed the Hindenburg as the quietest form of transportation Bassett had recorded. Similar accolades were heaped upon the Hindenburg in relation to its lack of vibrations and noticeable disturbances. He concludes with, "In my opinion, the dirigible has found a permanent position in transocean commercial transportation" (Rosendahl 207).

Comfort and Luxury in the Air: Graf and the Hindenburg

The similarity of dirigibles to steamships aesthetically and ideologically is particularly evident through the two most notable passenger dirigibles: the Graf Zeppelin and the famous Hindenburg, both German airships.

Crosssection of Gondola of the Graf

The Graf, which took its maiden voyage in 1928, introduced the world to the passenger airship with the first cross-Atlantic flight, traveling from Friedrichshafen, Germany to the US Naval Air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. This maiden voyage was followed with a series of demonstration trips, including one around the world, before eventually beginning regular trips between Friedrichshafen and South America (Vaeth 48).

The Hindenburg, which followed the Graf in 1936, was the crown jewel of the German passenger dirigible industry. The 118th airship built by the Lufschiffbau-Zeppelin Company, it provided service between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, and measured in at a staggering 803 feet by 135 feet. At that point, the Hindenburg was the largest man made object to ever fly (Vaeth 48).

While they lacked some of the amenities available on the luxury steam ships of the time, both the Graf and the Hindenburg offered its passengers the most comfortable and luxurious experience available on an aircraft. As Rosendahl, a airship traveler an enthusiast expressed:

“In the matter of comforts in travel, airships can provide the best. In modern airships you ride in a sheltered structure, there is no noise, vibration, dirt, smoke, and the motion, when there is any, is usually only a very mild pitching. I have never seen any seasickness in an airship. There are ample comforts for sitting, sleeping, reading, writing, card playing, walking about and exercising and the new passenger airships contemplate even ball rooms.” ("Lighter..." Rosendahl 329)

Overall, as shall later be discussed (See Communicative….) the design and experience of passenger airships reveal a commonly held attitude at the time towards travel: that travel should be an experience of convenience, comfort, and to a certain extent, glamor.

Graf Dining Room from advertising brochure "Two and One Half Days to Europe' issued by Deutsche Zeppelin- Reederei, 1936 (Zeppelin Decor 51)

The Graf accommodated twenty a passengers in a dirigible sized ninety eighty feel by twenty feet. The airship's common room, a room about sixteen square feet was decorated with curtains and red wine colored carpets and rotated as the dining room and lounge. Passengers on the Graf ate off expensive linens, silver and white china which displayed the Lufschiffbau-Zeppelin monogram (Vaeth 38). While quarters were close, with two people to a small-sized cabin, each cabin had a window with an outside view, a small closet, table, stool and settee (Vaeth 53).

The Dining Room on the Hindenburg, advertising brochure "Two and One Half Days to Europe' issued by Deutsche Zeppelin- Reederei,1936 (Zeppelin Decor 57)

While the Graf was quite convenient for a vehicle of its size, it was widely acknowledged that it simply wasn’t large, efficient, or comfortable enough. The airship to fill these qualifications was the infamous Hindenburg. One of the best accounts of the Hindenburg comes from the diary of Louis Lochner, who was working as the chief of the Berlin Bureau of the Associated Press at the time of the journey (Lochner 102).Lochner describes his perception of the luxury of the Hindenberg in his diary:

The Menu aboard the Hindenburg (Zeppelin Decor 57)

The fifty passengers making the first flight to Lakehurst were surprised at the luxury of their accommodations. Each of the twenty- five cabins had two berths and running water. On one side of the ship were a reading and writing room and a lounge, the latter equipped with a grand piano; on the other side was a dining room which served such fare as fresh brook trout and the finest German wines(…) On both sides ran a fifty-foot promenade fitted with specially slanted windows to facilitate observation. On the deck below was a bar, and nearby a smoking room, which passengers entered and left through a specially controlled door. (Lochner 101)

The Hindenburg's interior architect Professor Frits Brehaus, and Arpke, an artist, worked alongside Dr Ludwig Durr, the company’s main constructor on the overall aesthetics, layout and decorative elements of the Hindenburg. In fact, according to J. Gordon Vaeth, writing in 1990, “they produced an airship with featured for the traveler as amazing today as they were then”. This included a shower-bath, a smoking room (despite millions of cubic feet of hydrogen overhead), and a dining room, like the Graf, equipped with staff that "run like that of a luxury hotel”, adorned with paintings by Arpke of scenes from around the world (Vaeth 56).

Both the Graf and the Hindenburg, and the other passenger dirigibles planned by the American Goodyear corporation were vehicles specially marketed as pleasure "ships", offering the lucky few a chance to travel in style and luxury.

Empire State Building: Mooring Mast

Perhaps the most symbolic, recognizable artifacts of the time when airships were believed to be the future is the 'mooring mast' spire atop the Empire State Building. When the building was being built in the late 1920s and opened on May 1st, 1931, dirigibles were still believed to be the future of luxury air-travel, particularly for cross-Atlantic flights to and from Europe. This, among other factors, led to the inclusion of a mooring mast for dirigibles at the top of the 85th floor of the then-tallest building in the world, creating a one-of-a-kind airport that, unfortunately, never came to be used.Much like the airships themselves, the mooring mast on top of the Empire State Building became forgotten, re-appropriated (into an observation deck and radio tower), and failed to live up to its potential and expectations. What makes the mooring mast so interesting as a cultural artifact, however, is its persistence in existence, as an architectural construct that still exists today, hidden behind a layer of modernity but visible to the keen observer.

"It Needs A Hat!"

Diagram of Empire State Building Mooring Mast
There were three major figures behind the construction of the Empire State Building. Alfred E. Smith was a former governor of New York and a failed presidential candidate. Smith became one of the chief financiers of the project. His partner was John Jacob Raskob, his campaign manager and another major financial backer. Finally, the architect was William Lamb of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon (Goldman 31)

The major impetus behind the Empire State Building's construction was to break the record for tallest building in the world. The French had recently accomplished the feat with the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Raskob was the main driving force behind the more 'flamboyant' gestures of the design, pushing for both the height and the Art Deco style. After encouraging Lamb to make it as tall as he could so it wouldn't "fall down," Raskob looked at a finished scale model of the then 86-story building. His response was simple, only four words, yet led to the most defining feature of the building. He said, "It needs a hat!" (Goldman 32).

Raskob then suggested his own solution, a dirigible 'mooring mast.' The mast would extend the height 200 feet above the 86th floor, as well as allow for passenger dirigibles to tie to the mast, enabling passengers to disembark right into their building, and into the heart of Manhattan. The announcement of the addition to the design was made by the face of the building, Alfred E. Smith:

The directors of the Empire State, Inc., believe that in a comparatively short time the Zeppelin airships will establish trans-Atlantic, trans-continental and trans-Pacific lines, and possibly a route to South America from the port of New York. Building with an eye to the future, it has been determined to erect this tower to land people directly on Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue after their ocean trip, seven minutes after the airship connects with the mast. (Goldman 32)

Looking Good

There were, of course, other motivations behind the addition of the mooring mast than simply providing the tallest building in the world a nice 'hat.' Before the mast was added to the design, the Empire State Building was still in a tight competition with the Chrysler Building to become the tallest building in the world. The Empire State Building, according to design, would be 1,000 feet tall, a mere 75 feet over the Chrysler's 925. Raskob did not like that close of a margin. According to Hamilton Weber, the rental manager of the Empire State Building, "Raskob was worried Walter Chrysler would pull a trick - like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute" (Shanor 108)

In fact, that is exactly what Chrysler did. The Chrysler Building was suddenly 1,046 feet tall, and the Empire State Building needed to catch up. Despite design changes to make the Empire State Building 85-stories, Raskob was at an even smaller margin of victory than before: 4 feet. Enter, the 'hat.' According to Shanor, despite Raskob and Smith's allegations otherwise, the true intent of the mooring mast was never about dirigibles. Following the construction of the largest building in history, paired with the recent stock market crash to end the decade, the Empire State Building was in jeopardy of becoming a major bust. In this way, the mooring mast, and the announcement of it, became a keen marketing ploy. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the Empire State Building (Shanor 109).

The mast was designed both as a port for the airships as well as a luxurious entrance into New York City for its passengers. The entrance into New York would have been astounding. The ship would be guided in by a blazing white light, much like a lighthouse guides sailors at night. Upon connecting with the tower, eight portholes on the mast would emit mile-long streams of light in all directions as a signal to the city of an airship's arrival. After mooring with the mast, the airship would extend a narrow gangplank out onto an open balcony on the 103rd floor of the Empire State Building. This would no doubt be an exhilarating experience, a quarter of a mile above the streets below. After debarking, passengers would ride an elevator down to the 86th floor, which would feature lounges, a ticket agency, customs, and baggage services, not to mention a breathtaking view of the city (Shanor 109).

People were intrigued, to say the least, with a variety of responses from positive amazement to indignant skepticism. After the building's official opening on May 1, 1931, Mayor Jimmy Walker called the skyscraper "the most beautiful building in the world" (Shanor 113). There were, however, more harsh criticisms directed towards the building, most of which centered on the mooring mast sitting atop it. Critics called the mast "a public comfort station for migratory birds" and claimed it "stuck on the top as awkwardly as a thumb" (Shanor 113).

Despite the negative comments, people were talking, and Raskob believed in the old adage of any press is good press. In fact, the building appeared in the press time and again, like a January, 1930 New York Times article describing the "novel design" of the skyscraper, focusing on the inttended mooring mast issues. According to the article, "The dirigible mooring mast, due to rise more than 200 feet above the roof, is presenting technical problems, but these are no greater than might be expected under such a novel plan" ("Smith Skyscraper Has A Novel Design" New York Times)

And it worked on the street level, too, with people constantly craning their necks and gawking during construction and completion. A sidewalk astronomer who charged people a nickel per use said "I do four or five times as much business in the daytime as I do at night. People are more curious about that mooring mast... than they are about the moon, and all the stars and planets" (Shanor 113).

Working Poorly

The hype for the mooring mast was successfully at fever-pitch, much like it was for airship travel in general. But it would not live up to the hype when put to a practical usage test.

Leading up to the first attempt at mooring an airship, the press had a great deal of interest in the mooring mast, both its visual aesthetic and its practical usage. Interest in skyscrapers in general was piqued at this time, with the construction of the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the Manhattan bank all occurring around this time. A meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers took place on January 22, 1931 and received coverage in the New York Times and discussed the importance of wind-bracing towers. One of the subjects of this meeting was the perceived affects the Empire State Building's mooring mast would have to endure to successfully moor a dirigible ("Skyscraper Trend Called Higher Yet" New York Times ).

Empire State Building with Mast Under Construction

Even preliminary inspections of the mast proved unfavorable. The commander of the Graf Zeppelin, Dr. Hugo Eckener himself inspected the mooring mast. The article describes his visit to the mast in detail, as he accompanied Raskob as well as the wife and son of Winston Churchill. Eckener claimed that "only under favorable weather conditions" would the mast work successfully. During the press conference with Eckener's results, he went on to extol the science and art of airships in general, saying, "I am convinced that the voyages of this new and great ship (Akron) will give a new impulse to the development of airships and new success to the art. Also, we in Germany have now started construction on a new ship for commercial use. This airship will be considerably larger and quite a bit faster than the Graf Zeppelin" ("Eckener Inspects Empire State Mast" New York Times).

It was September 15, 1931 that the first blimp was able to moor to the mast. A small, private dirigible arrived at just past 9:00 in the morning, and took over a half hour to become attached, due to combating forty-mile winds. It stayed moored down by ropes for three minutes. No permanent contact was made, and no people were let on or off (Moors to Empire State "New York Times").

Two weeks following this first successful mooring, another dirigible looked to connect and drop off editions of the Evening Journal to commemorate their 35 year anniversary. Unable to actually connect, the papers were (somewhat) successfully delivered, as they had to be lowered on a line and cut by a man leaning over the balcony with a penknife. Attempts continued throughout the rest of 1931, until it proved fruitless. The mast and the flight-lounge at the base were all converted into observation balconies and souvenir shops. The current observation level is the 86th floor, once the future home of the dirigible terminal (Shanor 113).

Dirigibles as Communicative Force

While the airship is clearly a transportation medium, taking people from one place to another, it can also be viewed as a communicative force in its own right. In fact, the dirigible represents a particular time, before the advent of the telegraph, when transportation and communication were still inherently connected as message generators. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the "medium is the message", therefore, how one was transported had a particular message in itself. The communicative force of the airship thus becomes clear through both it's emphasis on luxury and it's connecting of previously warring nations.

Travel: More than Point A to Point B

Distance today is no longer computed in miles, but in expenditure of time required to travel from one place to another. ~ Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company Pamphlet "The Story of the Airship" (p. 15)

As is evident by the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelins, airships conveyed a very particular attitude towards travel that was common in the early to mid 20th century. Through our examination of the decoration and design of these passenger dirigibles, it becomes clear, in fact, that the experience of the dirigible journey was as important to travelers as was their destination. In reference to the Goodyear Pamphlet quote, the new importance laid onto time over distance also means a raised awareness of how that time was spent. Thus, luxury and comfort were major indicators of 'good' travel as well as speed.

The airship experience was a fundamentally entertaining and social one. Travelers got to know one another well, socialized in the common areas, enjoyed high caliber cuisine, and were serenaded with music off the ship's grand piano. Many passengers looked forward to travel on an airship, not simply because of the efficiency, but because of the overall atmosphere of luxury and ease.

Our contemporary notion of air travel is coated in language of drudgery, inconvenience and discomfort. We dread trips to the airport, the environment of high stress where we are dehumanized, searched, and crammed into a small space. Instead, our closest instance of this concept of travel as an "experience" is the cruise ship, where the entire boat is seen as a site for entertainment, socialization and play. Our mainstream concept of air travel, however, is largely removed from the notion of travel as pleasurable. Consequently, the passenger dirigible of the 1920s and 30s acts as a snapshot of a historic moment in which the travel was thrilling, enjoyable, and even indulgent.

International Symbol of Peace? - Death Machines to Luxury Dreams

German Advertisement for the Hindenberg (note prominent Nazi swastikas) Translation: "North America in 2 Days!", 1936

During the First World War, the image of the German Zeppelins as a war-machine was branded onto the memory of the Allied nations, particularly the British. As J.C Hunsaker says in "The Day of the Dirigible," "Londoners would have wanted strong persuasion in the early war years to believe that Zeppelins could easily be forgotten. Terror was too real and close a thing in those days" (Hunsaker 432). In other words, dirigibles were so strongly associated with war, that it seemed impossible that eventually they would be seen outside of the sphere of combat and destruction.

And yet, incredibly, passenger dirigibles in a post World War 1 context became strong associated with the building of a peaceful global community. As Rosendahl said in 1928, "by providing intimate and rapid contact of the people of the earth, this airship will soon be recognized as an instrument of the highest order for helping reach that elusive goal of world peace" (334). The notion of civilian travel was linked to the idea of cultural sharing, and in the wake of the horrors of WW1, the notion of German citizens traveling to New York City, or vice versa seemed as though it could have positive results for the relationships between the nations at large.

Of course, this perspective was overly idealistic and naive. While the Germans were establishing their reputation on the world stage as peace builders through the Graf and the Hindenburg the Nazis were gaining more power and hunger for expansion. In fact, the Hindenburg "and the larger hanger needed to build it were made possible by government, which is to say Nazi support". While Hitler was largely ambivalent to dirigibles, "Joseph Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, however, saw their agitprop as well as their commercial value: uniquely German, the ships could carry the swastika overseas and serve as highly visible symbols of German technical prowess". In other words, while dirigibles were presented as instruments of peace, bridging gaps between nations, in reality, particularly in the case of the Germans, it was far more about putting a single nation on display before the world, than about spreading goodwill throughout the globe.


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Botting, Douglas. The Giant Airships. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life, 1981.

"Eckener Inspects Empire State Mast." New York Times. Mar 27, 1931. pg. 27.

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Hunsaker, J.C. "The Day of the Dirigible". The North American Review. Vol 229, No 4. (April 1930).

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Rosendahl, Commander C.E. What About the Airship? New York: Scribner's Sons, 1938.

Rosendahl, C.E. "Lighter-Than-Air Machines". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Vol 67, No 4. (1928).

Shanor, Rebecca Read. The City That Never Was. New York: Viking, 1988.

"Skyscraper Trend Called Higher Yet." New York Times. Jan 23, 1931. pg 28.

"Smith Skyscraper Has a Novel Design." New York Times. Jan 8, 1930. pg 11.

Vaeth, J. Gordon. "Zeppelin Decor: The Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg". The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. Vol. 15- Transportation Theme Issue (Winter - Spring 1990)

Warner, Eric P. "Development of Transportation by Air". Scientific Monthly, Vol 18 No. 4. (April 1924).

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