Captured on film, the burning of the zeppelin Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, shocked the world. Veteran science writer Regis (What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, 2008, etc.) writes a gripping description preceded by a history of lighter-than-air flight and its greatest proponent, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917).
Retiring from the German army in 1890, Zeppelin resumed a lifelong obsession with airships. He built a series of them that were as large as ocean liners but carried only a few dozen passengers. They were too large to control in bad weather and were lifted by highly flammable hydrogen. Unlike the Wright brothers, ignored for years after their 1903 flight, zeppelins were a media sensation in Germany. Despite a dismal safety record, investments poured in, and Zeppelin established the world’s first commercial airline in 1909. By 1930, 26 zeppelins had burned, but Germany’s devotion persisted until 1940, when the Hindenburg’s successors were junked. Regis explains that zeppelins were examples of pathological technology. “It is in the nature of pathological technologies,” he writes, “that they are characterized by grandiose ambitions driven by emotional, romantic, starry-eyed mind-sets or utopian spells.” The author also describes Operation Plowshare, the wacky American program for earth-moving through nuclear explosions. Few readers would disagree with the foolishness of the nuclear-powered aircraft or the expensive and so far futile attempt to control hydrogen fusion, but Regis chooses less-convincing illustrations. Plenty of scientists deplore the 1993 cancellation of the huge American superconducting supercollider, and the author’s contempt for an obscure movement to build a starship seems like overkill.
A fine account of the rigid airship and, despite a dearth of good examples, a thoughtful meditation on out-of-control technology.