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Markets, Risk, and Fashion: The Hindenburg’s Smoking Lounge

Friday, May 4, 2012

The idea of a smoking lounge immediately under 7 million cubic feet of flammable gas should seem ludicrous. But it wasn’t.

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn used to advise his students to read the books and papers of the past not for their insights into present-day science but, to the contrary, to notice what was strange about them. Those puzzling ideas, he believed, could reveal the hidden and deep assumptions of their age.

The same may apply to the technology and commerce of the past. And few of its innovations seem odder today than the smoking lounge on the airship Hindenburg, which caught fire upon landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.

Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the facts of, and theories surrounding, the disaster. A ball of flame appeared as the great ship was docking at the mooring mast. It sank to earth, killing 35 of the 97 passengers and crew members, plus one worker on the landing field. Almost exactly 25 years earlier, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank at night, there were no photographs or outside witnesses. The Hindenburg’s crash, on the other hand, was broadcast the next day on network radio and memorialized in countless newsreels, television programs, and (more recently) Internet videos. (In a strange inversion of the Titanic tragedy, at least one crew member of the Hindenburg survived thanks to the bursting of a water ballast tank, saving him from the flames.)

Even after the nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the Hindenburg remains the most spectacular technological tragedy captured on film, outside military and terrorist attacks.

Despite revisionist theories, such as one claiming that the paint on the airship’s surface both sparked and fed the explosion, most experts still blame hydrogen. The Zeppelin company originally preferred the cheaper and more readily obtainable hydrogen, but after 48 of 56 passengers on a British airship were killed in a storm in 1930, Zeppelin’s engineers planned the new design for the safer, nonflammable helium. Unfortunately for Zeppelin, Congress had passed a law in 1927 banning the export of helium because it was a strategic gas with military aviation potential. There was thus no alternative to hydrogen, despite its risks. (Interestingly, the United States lifted the ban on helium after the Hindenburg disaster, although it was reinstated in 1938 after Nazi Germany annexed Austria.)

None of the half-dozen or more hypotheses and conspiracy theories on the cause of the fatal explosion and fire involves tobacco.

So how could the Zeppelin company have allowed smoking, even with the safeguards of negative air pressure to keep hydrogen out of the airlocked space? It’s true that matches and lighters were confiscated upon boarding; the smoking room was equipped with an electric lighter, similar to the kind of glowing coil that was once standard issue in automobiles. The bar steward was supposed to prevent guests from leaving absentmindedly with a lit smoke, since any fire could be catastrophic.

Still, hadn’t the Titanic’s sinking taught that a series of unlikely contingencies could defeat even multi-level defenses (in the Titanic’s case, those included watertight compartments, radio signaling, and sharp-eyed lookouts)? What could they have been thinking?

The Hindenburg episode actually teaches a lot about risk, markets, and fashion. Among Victorian men, high-wheel bicycles were notoriously prone to throwing riders into potentially lethal “headers,” yet it took decades for safer alternatives to replace them in the 1890s. The Dutch sociologist Wiebe Bijker has argued that for well-off young men—pennyfarthings weren’t cheap—the hazard was less a bug than a macho feature.

Even after the nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the Hindenberg remains the most spectacular technological tragedy captured on film, outside military and terrorist attacks.

In the 1920s and ’30s, cigarettes were the height of style. On the pre-war Titanic, affluent men in first class retired to a lounge filled with cigar smoke after dinner, while ladies had little choice but a writing room. By the 1930s, the luxury cigarette—machine-made, unlike hand-rolled Havanas—had become an icon of modernity in advertisements designed by leading artists and photographers. Smoking allegedly promoted creative thinking and helped keep weight down; aesthetic sophistication and slenderness had become the norms of the post-corset, post-Victorian wealthy.

The Hindenburg’s smoking room was thus a necessary concession to global travelers who could book a first-class cabin on the greatest ocean liner ever built (even to this day), the Normandie, at no more than half the price. Guillaume de Syon, author of a standard book on the zeppelins, points out that the room was extremely popular and travelers would otherwise have been oppressively bored, at least when no land was in sight. An open pack of premium cigarettes was thus a centerpiece of Hindenburg advertisements.

Should the passengers have been worried? The hydrogen-buoyed airship had already covered over 190,000 miles without a serious mishap, just as the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, had survived being rammed by a British cruiser in 1911. Edward Smith, the Olympic’s master at the time and the future captain of the Titanic, declared that the new vessel would also be “unsinkable.” Both estimates of safety were tragically wrong, but widely shared by customers before tragedy struck.  In the Hindenburg’s case, none of the half-dozen or more hypotheses and conspiracy theories on the cause of the fatal explosion and fire involves tobacco.

The bar steward was supposed to prevent guests from leaving absentmindedly with a lit smoke, since any fire could be catastrophic.

So essential was the smoking room to the Hindenburg’s commercial success that even Nazi authorities, who had no love for the still-liberally oriented company, did not attempt to suppress it in the interest of their anti-cancer war on smoking. De Syon points out that the campaign against tobacco was still in its early stages—the first major smoking bans, in the air force and post office, were proclaimed in 1938—and that the Zeppelin archives he used for his research were incompletely indexed, so he could not locate the files related to smoking policy and the technical features of the lounge’s design.

The very idea of a smoking lounge immediately under 7 million cubic feet of flammable gas, advanced precautions or no, seems ludicrous to generations familiar with the horrifying imagery of the airship’s end. In the 1980s, the satirist of past futurism, Bruce McCall, once drew a parody Hindenburg prospectus featuring a skeleton in an officer’s uniform asking elegant dining passengers, “Zigarette?” and more recently he punctured the ship’s dignity anew in a TED talk.

For all the often melodramatic reporting of the catastrophe—in which, incidentally, a far smaller proportion of passengers perished than on the Titanic—it was not the event that killed interest in zeppelins, but the transportation market and the global economic crisis. The coming of the Douglas DC-3, with improved ventilation and soundproofing, in 1936 (hundreds are still flying!) was beginning to make scheduled flights profitable without airmail subsidies. The zeppelins have been compared by de Syon and others to the Concorde—fast, elegant, and exclusive, but also comparatively cramped. Despite the Hindenburg disaster, zeppelins remained popular icons in Germany until the eve of World War Two. But the Nazi leadership saw no military future in the craft and even destroyed the sister ship, Graf Zeppelin II, in 1940.

Smoking allegedly promoted creative thinking and helped keep weight down; aesthetic sophistication and slenderness had become the norms of the post-corset post-Victorian wealthy.

Is a smoking renaissance ahead? I doubt it, because sometime in the 1980s, the social profile of the cigarette changed profoundly. As early as the 1970s, confidential tobacco company studies began to reveal that smokers were disproportionately lower class. It’s now rare in the West for any advertisement to depict smokers as an elite group. Health and “wellness” consciousness, once the province of crusaders like John Harvey Kellogg, is now in the bourgeois mainstream. That’s why, contrary to dire predictions by some restaurant and bar owners, legislated smoking bans haven’t damaged their business. The laws—propelled in part by reformed elite smokers like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg—are just ratifying a new consensus. That’s a far cry from the day when, as the historian Robert Proctor has put it, even Hitler was not able to defeat the German tobacco companies.

Airship lovers, on the other hand, may have the last laugh against detractors. Bruce McCall may have ridiculed the concept as carrying “56 people at the speed of a Buick at an altitude you could hear dogs bark,” but that was the very charm of it—an angel’s-eye cruise near the earth’s surface, a visual embrace of the landscape.

The present global economic crisis may have retarded the zeppelin’s revival, but it has hardly defeated it. The successor of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s company, now called Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH (ZLT) in Friedrichshafen, Germany, is building a “New Technology” (NT) series of airships using modern covering materials, engines, and electronically activated controls. While limited passenger capacity is still a challenge, the Zeppelin NT’s low noise and emissions are environmentally appealing. In the United States, Goodyear is planning to buy Zeppelin NTs in place of its blimps. The zeppelin has a bright future as what it really was even in the 1930s: a sublime transportation niche.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, and an affiliate of the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “Titanic and the 1%,” “The Naked and the Dead: Weegee’s Lessons for Today,” “The Dismal New Science of Stagnationism,” and “Why I’m an Adbooster.” Nicholas Eberstadt adds “NYC Health Claims Don't Add Up.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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