Even as a long time Helium head, I actually didn’t know much about the history of the original Zeppelin company. I also didn’t know much about the early history of civilian airlines. So I learned a lot from this book.
As Rose makes plain, in the early twentieth century, it was far from clear whether lighter than air or heavier than air transport would dominate long distance travel. Airships had an initial advantage; at a time when airplanes were small, noisy, short range death traps, dirigibles were carrying tons of cargo and passengers continental distances. But rapid technical advances quickly changed the balance. By the 1930s the writing was on the wall, and the competition was over.
Rose’s history is full of politics (Zeppelins are inevitably connected with the first world war), economics and personalities. Much of this is quaint, steampunk nostalgia. Zeppelins over South America! Barnstormers over the Midwest! Pan American Clippers at Wake Island! The Hindenburg!
But there are a lot of familiar themes for the Internet Age.
It is fascinating to read about the amazing PR of the Zeppelin company, which never made a profit from air operations, but garnered a mega ‘kick starter’ from the German public, garnered years of government subsidies, and racked up impressive merchandise sales. It seems like Zeppelin was in ‘demo mode’ for most of its life.
Rose points out that airplanes were smaller and cheaper than airships and therefore developed at a much faster pace. New airplanes came out every year, incorporating new designs and technology at an astonishing clip. Airships were huge and monstrously expensive, so there could never be very many, and they took a long time to build. Small, agile development won out, big time.
The early history of airlines reminds me of early Internet days. There were swirling currents of public and private enterprise, with public investments and policy having outsized (if not always predictable) influence. In the US, postal contracts turned into an unintended “pull” that helped boot up civilian air transport. And everywhere, landing rights were an opportunity for attempted monopoly and, of course, graft. And, of course, booting up an airline is an example of building a network service, with a lot of familiar first-mover and scale effects.
At the same time, private capital was roaring along, initially unfettered by regulation. Technology that barely worked, or didn’t work at all. Airlines with big names and no planes. Swashbuckling mergers and boardroom shenanigans. Irrational exuberance and just plain BS out the wazoo.
And when Pan American finally got it together, there was a breathtaking burst of heroic infrastructure building. Amazing new aircraft. Astonishing levels of customer service. A network of new airports, including from-the-ground up complexes way out there on Midway and Wake.
If there was ever a model for a Mars colony, it would be these early Pacific stations build by Pan Am. Everything had to be shipped in (except the air). Building it was one thing, keeping it going was a different story.
A fascination story of a huge technical “inflection point” in history. Worth a read.
- Alexander Rose, Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World, New York, Random House, 2020.
Sunday Book Reviews