…let’s consider the fact that the Hindenburg had a smoking lounge.
Yes, that Hindenburg. The hydrogen-filled airship most famous for catching on fire and killing three dozen people. The Hindenburg that you’ve probably never even seen a picture of where it wasn’t on fire.
The golden age of lighter-than-air travel was relatively brief. It ended in a way that ensures that just one human lifetime later pretty much all we remember about it is “OH THE HUMANITY”. As a result, there’s not a lot of cultural awareness of the day-to-day realities of airship travel, the way there is for other forms of long-distance transportation. Most of us have seen the inside of a luxury ocean liner or rail car, if only in the form of lavishly designed movie sets. I think the only time I’ve seen the inside of an airship portrayed on screen was the famous “no ticket” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The impression that stuck with me from that scene years later was that the passenger seating area on a Zeppelin-class airship was quite a bit roomier than even the most luxurious airplane, but I didn’t know the half of it. I didn’t know the tenth of it. What I took for the entire passenger compartment was in fact simply one lounge. I was using the wrong frame of reference in comparing an airship to an airplane. The operative word in “airship” isn’t “air”, after all, it’s “ship”. Planes have seats; ships have decks full of salons, corridors, and berths.
I think the movie probably did a better job of conveying the scope and scale of an airship than my adolescent memory retained. The big obstacle in realizing how much usable space there was aboard an airship was the fact that when I looked at one, I tended to envision the whole torpedo-like superstructure as essentially being a giant cigar shaped balloon, with any space occupied by the crew, passengers, and cargo necessarily being restricted to a small, gondola-like attachment on the bottom, much like the typical modern blimp.
Now, as it happens, I wasn’t far wrong, just wrong enough.
A Zeppelin-style airship wasn’t a balloon at all. The superstructure was rigid, and housed a set of cells arranged in rings that held the lifting gas. What was mostly inside the structure was empty space. The habitable portion of the ship was limited to a small area near the bottom, but it was mostly enclosed within the superstructure. You can find cut-away diagrams, deck plans, and photographs of the Hindenburg on airships.net.
That site is where I first learned about the smoking room. They say:
“Perhaps most surprising, aboard a hydrogen airship, there was also a smoking room on the Hindenburg. The smoking room was kept at higher than ambient pressure, so that no leaking hydrogen could enter the room, and the smoking room and its associated bar were separated from the rest of the ship by a double-door airlock. One electric lighter was provided, as no open flames were allowed aboard the ship. The smoking room was painted blue, with dark blue-grey leather furniture, and the walls were decorated with yellow pigskin and illustrations by Otto Arpke depicting the history of lighter-than-air flight from the Montgolfiers’s balloon to the Graf Zeppelin. Along one side of the room was a railing above sealed windows, through which passengers could look down on the ocean or landscape passing below.”
Think about that. A double-door airlock protecting a specially pressurized room, all so people can smoke aboard a flammable craft held aloft by explosively flammable gas. Passengers boarding a Zeppelin were further required to surrender their matches and lighters, along with their cameras, the latter of which would be returned once the flight had crossed over into international waters.
You see, in 1930s Europe, there were national security concerns relating to the relatively novel phenomenon of aerial photography.
And it’s that bit of sociological context that is so fascinating about this, and about the fact that there was a smoking room on the Hindenburg. It wasn’t enough that humanity learned to defy gravity, or even that we figured out how to make it decadently comfortable, creating the equivalent of a floating pleasure-palace for leisurely motoring across the Atlantic Ocean. No. Smoking was what the people of the time did, so adding to the marvelous feats of engineering that made the trip possible, we also engineered a solution for how to light tiny sticks of rolled paper or leaves stuffed with dried herbs on fire so we could suck on them in perfect comfort and security.
If there’s a problem with ancient myths like those of Icarus and Phaeton, it’s that they badly underestimated the casual arrogance that humanity can rise to. The word “hubris” usually implies someone who is something of a braggart. I mean, everybody remembers the claims that the Titanic was unsinkable, even if we’re not sure exactly who claimed that. We just repeat “They said the Titanic would never sink!” as if there’s some great lesson to be learned from it. Sure, any ship can sink. Not every ship will sink.
Nobody ever said that the Hindenburg was fireproof, though, and the fact that they had a smoking room on board did not in any way lead to the fiery doom that nevertheless awaited it. It would have burned the same with or without a smoker’s lounge.
The lesson here isn’t about hubris, exactly. It’s about the lengths we will go in order to preserve whatever we think of as normal. Smoking was allowed on the Hindenburg, albeit under heavy restrictions, because it would have been unthinkable to ban it completely.
The Canadian TV show Bomb Girls, set at a munitions factory just a few years after the Hindenburg disaster, shows the period-accurate precautions undertaken to prevent fire hazards at a bomb factory. Workers present themselves for inspection daily to ensure that they have no metal accessories and are wearing the right kind of shoes. And cigarette smoking is only permitted outside the factory, using electric lighters. Not “no smoking on premises”, but “please light your smoldering ember-stick only with a controlled electric spark, not an open flame”.
I don’t point this out to say, “Man, the past was full of some real schmucks!” The ability to contort our lives into abnormal shapes in order to preserve what we see as normal is a constant of the human experience.
Witness the extreme lengths we go to in most parts of the United States order to keep our houses surrounded by lush, green lawns comprised of a single species of grass and trimmed to what we see as an attractive length. It’s not the natural state of our environment. It’s not something that conveys any actual benefit. It’s not the easiest or cheapest arrangement. The zeal with which we pursue it is actively making rendering parts of the country uninhabitable in the long run. But rather than abandoning the practice, we more often seek to engineer complicated solutions to maintaining it.
And no, the point of this post was not to start by talking about the Hindenburg and then segue into an argument for sustainable lawns, any more than it was to point a finger at the past and laugh at it. The green, green grass of our homes is just an example, one out of many.
The subject of this post says that history is weird, but the other thing we can say that history is, is “not over”. We’re still living it. Imagine what weird dissonances about our lives might stand out to future generations.