Lighter than Air: Library Exhibition on Zeppelins

At 803 feet long and 146 feet high, the Hindenburg, a Zeppelin built in Germany and completed in 1936, was the largest aircraft ever built. It included passenger cabins, a restaurant, a lounge, and even a smoking room. It traveled between Germany and Lakehurst, NJ—with a cruising speed of 78 miles per hour, the trip took four days of travel time. Sadly short-lived, the Hindenburg completed the trip only nine times before tragedy struck. On May 6, 1937, in front of a large crowd gathered in Lakehurst, it burst into flames and crashed, killing thirty-five of the ninety-seven people on board and one member of the ground crew. That disaster was a major contributing factor to the Zeppelin’s eventual demise.

Giants Lighter than Air, the new library exhibition, includes books, photographs, postcards, brochures, advertisements, and other materials that document these airships. The exhibition is curated by Nicolae Harsanyi, rare books cataloguer and associate librarian at The Wolfsonian.

The idea for this exhibition developed over time, as he took note of the collection’s significant amount of materials on the airships. “We have large holdings in the area of transportation—by air, by sea, by land—and the Zeppelins are part of that. I thought it would be very interesting to bring these materials to the attention of the public, to provide a broad overview of the technology of these lighter-than-air aircraft that eventually lost out to the airplane,” Harsanyi says. “Passenger transport by airships was very viable for long distance, trans-Atlantic flight for a time. I hope that the exhibition helps viewers become more familiar with a form of transportation that is hardly imagined today.”

The world’s first cigar-shaped rigid frame airship was built in 1900 by Count Ferdinand Zeppelin. Harsanyi explains that the distinguishing characteristics of Zeppelins were a rigid aluminum framework covered in a fabric envelope; separate multiple internal gas cells with a modular frame allowing for the addition of sections and gas cells; and rigidly attached controls, engines, and gondolas. The size of the passenger Zeppelins is hard to imagine today. “They were about seven football fields long, and they floated in the air,” notes Harsanyi. While fuel efficient, Zeppelins required large crews.

Zeppelins were used for both passenger service and military operations beginning in the early 1900s. Before the First World War, there were six airships that provided passenger service between major German cities. During the war, many Zeppelins were used for military purposes—a use that continued during the Second World War.

While we may largely have forgotten these floating airships, there are reminders of them even today: the spire on top of the Empire State Building was intended to be a Zeppelin docking station. And yes, the band Led Zeppelin is named for the Zeppelin, based on drummer Keith Moon’s prediction that his idea for a band would crash like a “lead Zeppelin.”



Postcard, Dirigible at Mast, Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J., date unknown
R. S. Clements Photographer, Lakehurst, N.J., publisher
5 1/2 x 3 1/2 in (14 x 9 cm)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection