This Day in History
The Hindenburg

The Hindenburg Disaster
May 6, 1937

Men have dreamed of flying from the time of Daedalus and Icarus. Leonardo da Vinci, whose inventiveness was limitless, invented and drew a flying machine. Finally, in 1783, Etienne Montgolfier launched a balloon - the first successful flying machine - which stayed afloat for some five miles. Two years later, Jean Blanchard and an American, John Jeffries, succeeded in crossing the English Channel by balloon. In 1793, Blanchard came to the United States and, in the presence of President Washington, flew a balloon of his own design above the capital city. The “father” of ballooning in America was the improbably named Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, whose contributions to ballooning enlisted the interest of Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian, and then of Secretary of War Cameron in the early 1860s. Cameron made Lowe chief of the Aeronautic Section of the War Department. As such, he built five balloons which performed sterling service in military reconnaissance on the eastern front during the Civil War.

It was with Ferdinand, Graf von Zeppelin, whose genius created a new kind of balloon - the dirigible or “zeppelin” - that balloon transport came of age. His own introduction to flying had come - interestingly enough - in St. Paul in 1860. By 1900 he had built the first of his zeppelins. During the first World War, Germany sent a number of these great airships across the Channel to bomb London - a foretaste of what was to come in World War II.

After the war, Zeppelin initiated the first trans-Atlantic air travel service. It is the last of his ships, the giant Hindenburg, over 800 feet in length and with a speed of eighty miles an hour, which is pictured here. It had made ten round trips between Germany and the United States when, while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, it suddenly caught fire and was totally destroyed. During World War II, the Allied Forces bombed the Zeppelin works out of existence; but the development of new, less vulnerable aircraft, not Allied bombers, had made the dirigible obsolete in any event.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.