Archive Digging: The Hindenburg

If you don’t know the story of the Hindenburg, let me summarize: the Hindenburg was a German zeppelin, a large passenger airship built in 1936. It met its dimise 14 months after birth when it caught fire passing above New Jersey in its first transatlantic voyage. The cause of the fire is unknown, though there are theories, and the lack of certainty is what intrigues me about this historical disaster.

Of course, the officials who built and tested this ship knew there was a possibility it would combust: they ended up utilizing hydrogen to lift the zeppelin as opposed to helium. Helium was far safer and not flammable; hydrogen, on the other hand, could easily catch fire. The Germans had a strong, safe record of fueling airships with hydrogen, though, and when they were unable to get their hands on helium as they had originally desired, they defaulted to hydrogen.

But there is no hard proof that hydrogen doomed the Hindenburg, even 75 years later. Newspaper articles published in the past 10 years speculate just as much about the origin of the fire as did articles in 1937.

An article by Russell B. Porter printed in the New York Times on May 10, 1937, details the confusion surrounding the events:

“Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, commanding officer of the Naval Air Station here and the outstanding American expert on lighter-than-air craft, testified at the opening of the official investigation today that he was completely mystified by the origin of the fire that destroyed the German dirigible Hindenburg with a loss of thirty-five lives last Thursday night.”

Rosendahl, Porter goes on to explain, negated the theory that static electricity sparked a flame when landing ropes connected to the Hindenburg hit the ground. A seasoned commander, Rosendahl had considered the landing conditions “satisfactory.” And while lightening was spotted distances away, the air over Lakehurst, New Jersey, was clear at the time.

Karl S. Kruszelnicki at ABC Science disagrees. He wrote an article in 2006 saying the mooring ropes are exactly what set of sparks on the Hindenburg, which in turn led to the bigger, fatal inflammation.

“The Hindenburg was covered with cotton fabric, that had to be waterproof. So it had been swabbed with cellulose acetate (which happened to be very inflammable) that was then covered with aluminium powder (which is used as rocket fuel to propel the Space Shuttle into orbit). Indeed, the aluminium powder was in tiny flakes, which made them very susceptible to sparking. It was inevitable that a charged atmosphere would ignite the flammable skin.”

And then, of course, there are always the conspiracy theorists. From an article in the Tuscaloosa News on February 15, 1972:

“Author Michael MacDonald Mooney says the fire that consumed the Hindenburg and killed 36 persons in 1937 was caused by a phosphate bomb planted by a leftist crewman who wanted to destroy the dirigible as a symbol of Nazism.”

Conclusion? Though endlessly fascinating, this is one of those rare events where combing through archival newspapers and documents offers no more a solid response than an article published today might. If you want to be morbidly creeped out, however, there is footage on YouTube of the interior of the ship and yes, even people who were on it.