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Lost Knowledge: Airships

Lost Knowledge explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten (or marginalized) tech of the past. We look at retro-tech, “lost” technologies, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of Make: Volume 17


Zeppelins. Airships. Dirigibles. These words have fired my imagination since I was a child and put together my first Zeppelin scale model. And as a headbanging teen, my devotion to a Led Zeppelin meant that I was always surrounded by icons of these floating horizontal skyscrapers. Every decade or so, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in airships, with new material availability, an energy crisis, or some other motivating factor. Today is no different. So here’s a sampling of some of the airships of the past, a few in the skies today, and some fantasies for the near future.

With a crew of drunken pilots, we’re the only Airship Pirates!
We’re full of hot air and we’re starting to rise
We’re the terror of the skies, but a danger to ourselves now.

“Airship Pirate,” Abney Park

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[Abney Park’s H.M.S. Ophelia darkens the skies over Stockholm]

So far, efforts to create a serious and sustained airship industry have fallen far short. It seems unlikely that airships will ever become common transportation, but it’d be nice to see them find some sustainable niche.

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Wikipedia has a lot of great information and links related to airships. Here’s an excerpt from the main Airship page:

“The Golden Age”

The “Golden Age of Airships” began in July 1900 with the launch of the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1. This led to the most successful airships of all time: the Zeppelins. These were named after Count von Zeppelin who began experimenting with rigid airship designs in the 1890s leading to the badly flawed LZ1 (1900) and the more successful LZ2 (1906). At the beginning of World War I the Zeppelin airships had a framework composed of triangular lattice girders, covered with fabric and containing separate gas cells. Multi-plane, later cruciform, tail fins were used for control and stability, and two engine/crew cars hung beneath the hull driving propellers attached to the sides of the frame by means of long drive shafts. Additionally there was a passenger compartment (later a bomb bay) located halfway between the two cars. Other airship builders were also active before the war: German firm Schütte-Lanz built the SL series from 1911; another German firm Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft built the Parseval-Luftschiff (PL) series from 1909, and Italian Enrico Forlanini‘s firm had built and flown the first two Forlanini airships.

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Construction of the USS Shenandoah in Lakehurst, New Jersey, 1923

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Navy blimps in hanger at Moffett Field, circa 1943

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Gondola of U.S. Navy blimp J-4. Elevator operator sat on the left. Rudderman sat on the right.

KQED’s QUEST video documentary, Zeppelins Resurrected, is about the crash of the USS Macon in the 30s and the return of airships to California:

The Hindenburg wasn’t the only air ship to end in a catastrophic crash. In 1935, the USS Macon went down in 1000 feet of water off the coast of Monterey, California. Now, as scientists study the recently-discovered wreckage, dirigibles are returning to the Bay Area and are poised to rule the skies once again. But these aren’t the same dirigibles – these are new and improved.


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Zeppelin NT is a German company seeking to revive the airship industry. They currently have four ships and have flown over 60,000 passengers to date. Zeppelin NT made the Airship Ventures ship that now flies out of Moffett Field (see below).

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The Airship Ventures Zeppelin NT arriving in the Bay Area in October 2008. They currently offers tours of the Bay Area (for $500/hour). You can keep up with their exploits via their blog, Up Ship!

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Size comparison showing the new Zeppelin NTs and other flying craft (er… and a giant squid).

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A Belgian engineer, Lieven Standaert, wants to develop self-sustaining air yachts that generate their own power:

The Aeromodeller II floats not on helium but on hydrogen, which has a dual function as fuel for the engines. The hydrogen is generated on board, while the ship hovers in the air and drops anchor at a height of 50 to 100 metres. This happens by means of a cable, similar to that of a kite. The zeppelin inverts its propellers, which then serve as windmills. They deliver the necessary energy to split water (coming from the ballast tanks and replenished by rain) into hydrogen and oxygen. Six hours of wind energy accumulate enough fuel for one hour of flying.

The Aeromodeller site is not in English, but Low Technology magazine has a nice piece about the project (from which the above excerpt was taken)

Jean-Marie Massaud is a French designer who’s designed a 690-foot dirigible shaped like a whale and planned as a floating luxury hotel dubbed the Manned Cloud.

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The Aerofeather is a one-person airship that you’re strapped to the bottom of and fly by flapping your wings. Oh, you don’t have wings? No problem. They’ll provide you with a carbon-fiber and nylon pair.

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The site Girders and Gears has an excellent piece, Airship-Dirigible Model Designs, which looks at airship models that have appeared in mechanical toy building systems over the years (Erector Set, Mechano, etc.).

16 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Airships

  1. This is a very cool article, but I hereby politely and respectfully request that extremely large articles like this be shortened before being added to the RSS feed. I know that with many blog software packages, there are often special codes, such as –more– that allow for making a shorter, “front page” version of a lengthy article. Having a 12 page article in-lined in my RSS reader makes things more difficult. Thanks!

  2. @https://me.yahoo.com/a/WazTTz01pIUbTT.rmhStRMxqcbc3Sdpb

    I’d realized the piece was too bloated for a single page and had already moved a bunch of it to a second page by the time your message came through. We’ll make sure to keep the front pages shorter in the future. Thanks for the input.

  3. Anyone else have problems watching the video on the Macon? Tried it pc & mac, ie/firefox/safari, video always seems to crap out around a minute or so when the guy discusses how macon was coming back from maneuvers.

    1. Hi All:

      We’ve uploaded a fixed clip for the embedded video. Should work fine now. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, and sorry for the glitch.

      Craig from KQED

  4. Readers in the Cambridge, MA area might be interested to know that the MIT Libraries are currently hosting an exhibit of items relating to the “Fascination of Flight.” It’s a small exhibit, but it highlights some of the holdings of the collections related to flight, from the earliest stages through the current and future realm of space exploration. There are a few lovely reprints of items from the Vail Balloon Collection. There are a handful of items on airships, which is why I mention it here.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn