“His Majesty’s Airship”

S.C. Gwynne

The extent of my knowledge of dirigibles, prior to reading this book, basically consisted of “they’re cool in steampunk, the Hindenburg going up like a struck match the size of a building made sure we don’t use them in real life, and I kinda hope we’ll be able to make them actually viable with modern technology sometime soon.” Which is, to be fair, probably between one and two more pieces of knowledge above average for the topic. I stand by two of them, and the third is also fairly accurate, but now the Hindenburg thing is supplemented with “it wasn’t even remotely the first time something like that happened, it was just the first time it happened on camera.” And boy, did that ever make a difference. Turns out it’s a lot less visceral to read about an airship crash than it is to watch it happen.

For a quick summary, rigid airships looked like they had a solid chance at being the New Big Thing for a while there. Zeppelin had some entertaining failures, weirdly became a national hero for having stuff go catastrophically wrong but in a way that everyone could be jingoistic about, and then The Great War began and it was already pretty dang obvious that air superiority was very important. Hey, look, this guy has been building these giant airship things, and had specifically envisioned them as being terror weapons the whole time! And so began the first blitz of London.

The word “terror” in there is doing a lot of important work, because as just regular ol’ weapon weapons, they were kinda hilariously inept. They had no idea where they were, most of the time—there’s a great line in the book about how they missed London (and valuable military/industrial targets) so often that people were starting to wonder if they were deliberately attacking crops in the fields. Hint: they were not, it’s just that airships are hard to steer.

War ends, British empire is the biggest empire to ever empire, and boy howdy would it be nice if we could just fly everywhere instead of waiting for boats to go the long way, eh? Politics happens, the British government throws millions of pounds at developing their airship, R101, it makes a triumphant first flight! No, wait, scratch that, it makes a triumphant first departure, heading off for a journey to show off just how fast you can get to India from London with an airship, and makes it as far as… France before it, quite literally, crashes and burns.

All told, the story is quite interesting. Some historians try to position themselves as without bias; Gwynne… does not. I had to copy down a quote from where he really shows what he thinks of this whole ‘airship’ concept: “In spite of what appears in retrospect to be excruciatingly obvious—the lethal impracticality of the big rigids—the idea did not die, and airships did not disappear.” (80) Tell us how you really feel, mate!

I read through it being quite entertained by that stance, because as I said at the start, I’m optimistic that we may one day be able to make this technology work. Not to get too Diamond Age about it, but I kinda suspect that nanotechnology and possibly building, like, something like an aerogel but filled with hard vacuum would work better than “an amount of hydrogen that could power a city for a day or two”. The fact that their best storage mechanism was cow intestines also says something about the sum total of manufacturing technology available at the time.

Really, a lot of what went wrong has more to do with management than technology. The head of the program, a politician who had built his entire brand around this project? Not gonna be super excited with delaying things for safety. The manager of the program who’s supposed to report to him being the kind of guy who passes on all the good news and buries the bad? Bad thing to have around when the thing you’re building is a gigantic bomb that you shove passengers into.

This was, overall, a very readable history book. I had a good time going through it, even if I did roll my eyes occasionally at the author and frequently at the people running the show.1 It’s worth your time to hear about this whole fascinating bit of history that tends to get forgotten by the flashier events that happened around it. Check it out.2

  1. Seriously, after the second time that the ‘admiral’ drunkenly overrules the captain of the ship and insists that he will do the landing, and then does the airship equivalent of scraping off the landing gear—maybe fire the guy? Just a thought.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.