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The airship of the future won’t look like this

Aircruise concept ship at mooring mast.

Mainly because of a little thing called aerodynamics.  An object shaped like an enormous wall is harder to move through the air than one that’s a little more streamlined.  This is why most of our aircraft (whether lighter- or heavier-than-air) do not resemble vertical walls.

But as Dan Grossman from Airships.net points out, media outfits like CNN and the Daily Telegraph have been completely fished in by a clever PR stunt that has zero chance of being built in the real world.

What began as a fun exercise by a London design firm — to illustrate the visionary creative abilities of the firm and its client, Samsung — has been picked up as if it were a real “news story” by CNN, the Telegraph, and other media outlets.

The firm of Seymourpowell, which has previously designed vibrating sex toys and packaging for tampon applicators and cat food (but has never engineered an aircraft) recently announced “plans” for a 100-passenger, octahedron-shaped, 870-foot tall luxury airship, inflated with over 11 million cubic feet of… flammable hydrogen.  (Yes, just like the Hindenburg.)

— Grossman, Dan.  “Hydrogen Airship Nonsense.” Airships.net, 3 February 2010.

Well, the basic shape would still make a pretty cool cat food bag; though I doubt that it would be any good as a tampon applicator.

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Airship designs of the Golden Age

A photo essay on airship designs, 1906-1937, using imagery sourced from Flickr.

America; non-rigid civil airship. Launched 1906, lost at sea in 1910 due to engine failure during an attempted transatlantic crossing. Crew (including ship's cat) recovered by RMS Trent near Bermuda; no losses. Wellman airship “America” seen from Trent 1910, originally uploaded by amphalon.

de Marçay-Kluytmans prototype airship with central rotating propeller ring (an evolutionary dead end). Rigid construction. c. 1907. Dirigible of Baron deMarcay, originally uploaded by amphalon.

LZ 4 / Z2. German military zeppelin; rigid construction. Launched June 1908, fatally damaged while moored August 1908. Zeppelin Landing on the Bodensee, originally uploaded by amphalon.

La République, French military reconnaissance airship. Semi-rigid construction. Launched June 1908, crashed September 1909. All four crew members were killed. The French airship “Republique”, originally uploaded by gregory lee.

Clément-Bayard, French experimental non-rigid airship. Has four lobes rather than fins for stability; the lobes retarded the maximum forward velocity of the airship. c1909. Dirigible Airship in its Shed, originally uploaded by amphalon.

R34 / G-FAAG; RNAS rigid airship. Launched March 1919, written off in 1921 after CFIT into North York Moors. Airship R34, originally uploaded by University of Glasgow Library.

ZR-3 USS Los Angeles; US Navy rigid airship. German-built, launched as LZ 126 in 1924; decommissioned in 1932, dismantled in 1939. Longest-serving US military airship. USS Los Angeles moored to USS Patoka 1931, originally uploaded by lazzo51.

USSR-W6 Osoaviahim; Russian military airship. Semi-rigid construction, designed by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile. Launched November 1934, lost February 1938 due to CFIT into Mount Nebo. 16 of 19 crew killed, crash spelled the end of the Soviet airship program. CCCP-B6, originally uploaded by lazzo51.

LZ 129 Hindenburg; German civil airship. Rigid construction. Launched March 1936, lost May 1937 due to fire. 36 passengers and 61 crew on board, 13 passengers and 22 crew died. Hindenburg in Curitiba (1936), originally uploaded by llvsboston.

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Graf Zeppelin being led from its hangar for its first flight on September 18, 1928. (Dan Grossman / Airships.net)

Graf Zeppelin being led from its hangar for its first flight on September 18, 1928. (Dan Grossman / Airships.net)

Teh intarwebs are a blessing for those of us who have an intense interest in obscure corners of history.   The time we would otherwise spend buried in a reference library, hunting down esoteric single-edition books can now be comfortably spent doing research from home.  Best of all, the net also provides a forum for us to share our knowledge and enthusiasm with others who share it—instead of merely boring our patient, understanding spouses.

It so happens that I have stumbled across something of a kindred spirit in Mr. Dan Grossman, an airship enthusiast who has amassed an outstanding collection of photographs and information about the lighter-than-air behemoths of the early 20th century.

Why my interest in airships?

As a technology and transportation nerd, I have long been fascinated by the history and technology of aircraft, ships, and trains.  And as a former pilot, obsessed by flight since I was a little kid, I naturally have a particular interest in the history of aviation.

In addition, as a technology enthusiast without formal training (my degree is in history, and not engineering), I am drawn to an era in which the most advanced technology of the day could be developed by untrained amateurs like Ferdinand von Zeppelin or Hugo Eckener.  The defining aviation technologies of the 1920’s and 1930’s — the improved internal combustion engine, the flying boat airliner, the passenger zeppelin — are remarkably simple devices, and there is not much about these machines that cannot be understood by a person with average intelligence and a touch of mechanical ability; there is something appealing for me about a time in which the height of technology was represented by machines which were, in essence, so very basic.

Whether or not one has a particular interest in airships, dirigibles and zeppelins, the information at Mr. Grossman’s site—Airships.net—is meticulously researched and gorgeously illustrated.  The sections on LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, LZ-129 Hindenburg, and the US Navy rigid airships (Shenandoah, Macon, Akron and Los Angeles) are peerless.  Go have a look.

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