Gareth Shute: Airships

The plan of an airship for Auckland, patented by John Crook of Ponsonby in 1886. Auckland Weekly News, 10 July 1902, p. 001. Ref: AWNS-19020710-1-2. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Auckland, New Zealand.

During the late 1880s, it looked certain that the airship would be the mode of transport of the future. Even down in New Zealand, visions of seeing them against skyline inspired painters to put pencil to paper. The fanciful nature of this future-that-wasn’t is what seems to make it appealing to steampunks everywhere — it’s as absurd as ray-guns and the idea that a species of humanoid Martians could actually live on the toxic surface of the planet Mars. By the early 1900s, children were creating their own toy airships…

“Who says we can’t fly?” Young New Zealanders off for an afternoon cruise in their airship. F.B. Ross, Auckland Weekly News, 12 May 1910, p. 007. Ref: AWNS-19100512-7-1. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Auckland, New Zealand.

All the best science of the time seemed to point to airships as the easiest way to achieve flight and these craft may have had a more enduring impact if it wasn’t for a quirk of geology — the majority of the naturally occurring helium in the world happened to be in the US, so European airship designers were forced to use flammable hydrogen instead. It took a while to appreciate how catastrophic this choice of fuel would be.

Initially, the Germans led the field in pushing forward the design of their airships and the company Zeppelin became a source of awe and, later, fear in countries nearby. It was believed that the airships might be able to undertake massive bombing raids, but targeting a bomb from an airship proved trickier than first anticipated. Instead, they were used as ultra-silent spy planes during the first World War, though the English soon learnt to retaliate with incendiary bullets, causing them to burst into flames.

How an invasion by air would appear. Auckland Weekly News, 10 April 1913, p. 001. Ref: AWNS-19130410-1-2. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Auckland, New Zealand.

After the war, airships began to be used as a means of transport by the general public, though this service was eventually put to rest by the shocking footage of the Hindenburg going down in flames — a news item that circled the world and scared any would-be passengers away. Airships eventually became an emblem of technology’s foibles, as when the most well-known progenitors of heavy metal were predicted to “sink like a lead zeppelin.” One lesson to be drawn is that the future can be hard to predict. Think of all those early sci-fi movies in which the characters were shown talking on video phones, even though it turns out that now we have the technology to see each other during phone calls, hardly anyone can actually be bothered to do so. Another lesson is that technology can take us down fruitless by-roads and it is hard to judge the value of our route until we’ve reached our destination. In answer to the utopian visions of technology, it is always possible to present a more dystopian reply, which draws equally strongly from the science.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the worst predictions of the peak oil campaigners and global warming pessimists are correct. Perhaps air-travel would once again become unaffordable for the average person, as it was a century ago. Many airports would be left to fall into ruin, located as they often are at the edge of the city. This future vision is not one that many people would seriously envisage taking place, but picturing this type of world does help to re-iterate the unpredictability of what may lie ahead. So when we look back at images of airships dramatically ruling the skies, we shouldn’t marvel at the naiveté of past dreamers, but cast a light on ourselves. What zeppelins do we believe in? Could they come crashing down in flames?


GARETH SHUTE is a writer and musician based in Auckland, New Zealand. His books include Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa (2004), Making Music in New Zealand (2005), Insights: New Zealand Artists Talk About Creativity (2006), NZ Rock: 1987-2007 (2008) and Concept Albums (2012). He works at Auckland Libraries and is currently a member of three bands: the Conjurors, the Cosbys and the Investigations.

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