Hindenburg Airship Skin
Hindenburg Airship Skin
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames in what should have been a routine landing. The airship was kept aloft by 16 gas cell chambers, which were infamously filled with flammable hydrogen. A spark was all it took for for the explosion to begin, which ripped through the Hindenburg in a matter of seconds.
This specimen is a swatch of canvas fabric from the airship skin of the Hindenburg. The specimen was acquired from one of the largest private collections of Hindenburg artifacts in the world. It was originally retrieved at the scene in 1937 by journalist Harry Kroh. Kroh was a local reporter dispatched to cover what was expected to be a routine landing, but turned into one the most well-covered disasters in history.
📸 The canvas skin's inner and outer faces
A Piece of the Airship
At the beginning of the 20th century, airship travel was the height of luxury. All that changed with the Hindenburg disaster.
On May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames in the skies over New Jersey. The zeppelin used a series of massive hydrogen gas cells to suspend itself in the air — unfortunately, that hydrogen was ignited into a roaring blaze.
The spark which ignited the Hindenburg quickly turned into a major fire. In just seconds, the airship was completely engulfed in flame. The gas cells and canvas lining were exactly the fuel that the fire needed to turn the Hindenburg into little more than a burning wreck.
This specimen is a swatch of canvas fabric from the airship skin of the Hindenburg. The cotton canvas was made taut and durable by doping the skin with a mixture of cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminum powder, which also gave the airship its signature, metallic appearance.
Swatches vary in size and shape, but each measures approximately one square centimeter in area. Swatches may exhibit uneven edges or have areas where the cloth beneath the aluminum doping is visible.
Each specimen is hand cut and may exhibit differences in color and texture. The specimen is enclosed in a handsome, glass-topped riker box case measuring 4 1/2" x 3 1/2". A small information card is also included.
Please Note: The swatch is enclosed in a small, specimen jar within the case. If you choose to remove the swatch from the jar, please be careful while handling. While the aluminum coating is still bright the fabric beneath is quite fragile.
📸 Eyewitness notes from journalist Harry Kroh and Hindenburg material
The specimen was acquired from one of the largest private collections of Hindenburg artifacts in the world. It was originally retrieved at the scene in 1937 by journalist Harry Kroh.
Kroh was a local reporter dispatched to cover what was expected to be a routine landing, but turned into one the most well-covered disasters in history.
AIRSHIP LENGTH: 245 METERS (~803 FEET)
MORE ABOUT THE HINDENBURG
"Oh, the humanity, all the passengers. screaming around here [...] Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed." - Herbert Morrison, WLS radio broadcaster at the scene of the disaster.
📸 The Hindenburg a year before the disaster
THE FATEFUL JOURNEY
On May 3, 1937 the Hindenburg set off on its final transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany to the United States. The airship’s smooth journey across the ocean belied the tragedy awaiting at its destination.
Three days later, 35 people would be dead and the mighty airship would be nothing more than a smoldering metal skeleton resting on a New Jersey airfield. Not only was the Hindenburg destroyed upon arrival, the entire notion of commercial airship travel ended that day.
The Hindenburg’s final journey was uneventful leading up to May 6. Strong winds had slowed the airship’s crossing, arriving hours later and in the midst of a thunderstorm. Forced to circle the area before they were able to dock, the ship floated over New York City, another massive spectacle briefly joining the Manhattan skyline. The awed spectators in the streets of New York could hardly guess at the disaster awaiting the ship.
📸 A map from the New York Times of the airship's flight path
Hours behind schedule, the ship finally dropped its mooring lines at 7:21 PM. As it was being pulled to the mooring tower, the airship suddenly burst into flames, destroyed in about thirty seconds.
The arrival of the airship was a major media event, with several news crews on the ground filming its arrival. Among them was journalist Herbert Morrison, working under a Chicago-area radio station, whose account of the explosion has become synonymous with the disaster itself.
The exact cause of the Hindenburg’s explosion remains a matter of debate. Owing to a US embargo on helium, airships generally used hydrogen, which was cheaper to make, has a higher lift capacity, but is also explosive.
The initial spark may have been caused by static electricity, a lightning strike, or deliberate sabotage, though no conclusive evidence has ever been found for the latter. But hydrogen wasn’t entirely at fault: the airship’s skin was also painted with a mixture of cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminum powder, which has a similar chemical composition as rocket fuel.
📸 The Hindenburg over Manhattan
Flagship of an industry
LZ 129 Hindenburg measured about 800 feet in length, and about 135 in diameter, with its sixteen gasbags boasting over seven million cubic feet of hydrogen.
A true behemoth, the Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built. It followed a long line of flying machine predecessors, many of them built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Though it was an impressive feat of engineering, the Hindenburg also came to serve as a propaganda tool for the rising Nazi powers in Germany, with four massive swastikas painted onto its tail fins.
This specimen is a piece of the airship's outer canvas skin. Its signature silver appearance wasn't just a style choice, but a result of the chemicals used to keep the cotton skin taut and durable.
The Hindenburg disaster spelled the end of the airship travel industry, but curiously it was not the first hydrogen explosion of such a craft. There were at least two dozen similar explosions that had claimed dozens of lives in the years leading up to the Hindenburg. Why then was it this disaster that ushered in the watershed change in travel?
For all of the destruction of those other disasters, none had been caught on film. The Hindenburg disaster, however, was witnessed not just by the ground crews but cameras which spread the image of destruction around the world. There was no mental distancing to be had from the disaster when everyone could view it on film. The Hindenburg explosion, perhaps the first mediatized disaster of the modern age, spelled the doom of the airship industry.
Front of the Specimen Card
Back of the Specimen Card
Archbold, Rick, and Ken Marschall. Hindenburg: an illustrated history. Warner Books, 1994.
Dessler, A. J. "The Hindenburg Hydrogen Fire: Fatal Flaws in the Addison Bain Incendiary Paint Theory." Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson AZ (2004).
Dick, Harold, and Douglas Robinson. The golden age of the great passenger airships: Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Smithsonian Institution, 2014.
“Hindenburg Design and Technology.” Airships.net, https://www.airships.net/hindenburg/hindenburg-design-technology/.
“Hindenburg Disaster Explained.” Chemical Engineering Progress, 1998, p. 7.
Regis, Edward. Monsters : the Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology. Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015.