Since the beginning of mankind’s written history, man has been fascinated by flight. The Greeks had Icarus, the great masters of the Renaissance had Da Vinci, and as the modern world approached ever closer to the end of the 18th century mankind was no longer bound to the earthen plane. We achieved…well, a levitation of sorts. Hot air balloon flight had sewn the seeds of the imagination for two French men, the Montgolfier brothers, in 1783 when they learned that placing a flame under a bag would float it in air. The first passengers ever in a hot air balloon was a sheep, a rooster, and a duck and they flew in front of the royal court of King Louis XVI. Who knew that was what it took to impress the French aristocracy.
This was most significant in the history of airships in that the nostalgia of the principles used during these early years are still used for modern sport and even weather balloons today. Over a hundred years before the Wright brothers took flight in their plane design at Kitty Hawk, airship travel was an instant success…for the most part. Jules Verne was inspired to write his famous Around the World in 80 Days in 1873 after wondering about circumnavigation in a balloon.
Soon, hydrogen was used along with a silk and rubber fabric giving balloon more lift time. Sadly, mixing both hot air and hydrogen together proved fatal. In 1785 Pierre Romain and Pilatre de Rozier became the first fatalities of airship flight. Rozier was ironically the first to fly in one, and the first to die as well. This, of course, did little to sway the public’s love of the gentle flying contraption. These balloons were not truly “airships” based on the fact that they couldn’t be navigated easily. So to change this, the hot air balloon got a new design.
And thus the dirigible was born. Well, the dirigible that we at Pennington love so well. It was in 1852 when a French engineer attached a steam engine to a propeller and chugged around the sky. For a Steampunk enthusiasts these types of dirigibles are quintessentially important for design. They signify freedom for now we could venture to any length to any part of the earth. Places that could not be reached were being explored and documented. But the greatest adventures, at least for us Penningtons, are the ones no one wrote down, those places that you hear about but may never see with your own eyes. The open airiness of these flying wonders must have been a very breathtaking experience and thus inspired not only adventure, but mystery as well.
Since dirigible flight, especially towards the end of the 19th century, had been accepted as a reliable and common form of transportation (albeit a dangerous one at times) many types of fanciful designs were conceived just as car couches were created for specific tastes. The cabins were made more luxurious, the color of the silk more vibrant and decorative, and the size ever more grand. Of course, these types of ships were overshadowed by…well, a very large shadow. As the world ventured into war, the use of dirigibles for personal use began to slightly diminish. One did not want to be shot down or thought an enemy. And so we come to the third great age in airship flight: the Zeppelins.
These monstrous machines outweighed the smaller airships in size…and ultimately death toll. Whether these ships caused death or they were the cause of death via internal explosions, the Zeppelins held dominance in the skies during the first world war and the beginning of the second. This, however, was not the inventors intent. Ferdinand Zeppelin was a German officer who had a company specifically for designing and building airships. With its frame of steel girders, this ships were large enough to carry passengers. Before war officially broke out across Europe, the Nazi party utilized a particular ship which they lovingly named after the recently deceased President Hindenburg. Though this ship was enormously successful, it will always be remembered for it’s sad end when it exploded in New Jersey in 1937. It only took less than a minute for the whole ship to be destroyed due to the highly flammable hydrogen used.
After the loss of the Hindenburg, airship flight was all but abandoned. The airplane took control of the skies and dirigibles were merely used for recreational purposes. As the science fiction genre took off in the seventies and eighties, the dirigible became a thing of fantasy and imagination. Through the sub-genre of Steampunk, many fans of the lost ships were able to bring their ideas to light.
To actually mark the year, how, why, who, and where dirigibles inspired many Steampunk designs would be not only exhausting but fruitless as well. You might as well try to pin point the very instant man thought of the idea for the wheel. For certain, these devices enchant more than just the everyday gear-head like us at Pennington and so that fancifulness, the very spirit of what these devices represent, is important to its success and popularity. Though dirigible flight is in no danger of making a full recovery, the nostalgia and sheer beauty of these machines is kept alive in the imagination of artists, writers, and designers who step back a little sometimes and become hopeless romantics in the future of the science fiction that never was.