One of the earliest forms of air travel was the zeppelin. These gigantic football-shaped airships possessed a metallic skeleton which allowed them to be built at enormous sizes, and were filled with hydrogen, the most common of elements. They could be used for passenger transport (this was, in fact, their primary use), but they had military applications as well, such as aerial bombardment and reconnaissance. Best of all, they were completely 100% safe. At least, that was the prevailing wisdom until the Hindenburg disaster.
You see, it turns out that hydrogen is flammable. Really flammable. Even more flammable than a bunch of dried kindling wrapped in old newspapers and doused in twenty gallons of gasoline. This basic scientific fact apparently eluded the original designers, who pumped more than seven million cubic feet of the gas into the ill-fated balloon. They then invited the world’s most rich and finest to travel on board, seemingly oblivious to the ticking time bomb that the floating zeppelin represented.
The disaster occurred on May 6, 1937. The Hindenburg had voyaged all the way from Frankfurt to Lakefurst, and was preparing to land at the local Naval station. One witness described seeing the upper fabric flutter, which suggests a gas leak, while another noticed numerous few arcs of static electricity moving along the side. It would seem that the proprietors had neglected to confiscate all shoes with rubber soles before starting their long journey across the Atlantic. The result was a fiery inferno in which thirty-six people perished.
Herbert Morrison, a radio announcer, was there to announce the Hindenburg’s landing. While normally a cool-headed fellow, the sight of the tragic conflagration caused his mind to snap, prompting one of the most famous broadcasts of all time. Despite common belief, his report was not aired live, and did not get released until the following day. His impassioned response struck a chord with the nation, shattering people’s faith in the safety of zeppelins. Within a year, their function as transport had come to an abrupt halt, and they would eventually be relegated to floating over the Superbowl to advertise shoe sales. Oh, the humanity.