Behemoths of the Sky

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Link here. This article by Doug Messier, about the German attempt to create an industry around rigid lighter-than-air airships, is the first of a five part history series that he will use to illustrate some fundamentals about new industries.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.



  • wayne

    Interesting topic!

    I just skimmed the 1st installment–

    How much were tickets on the various airships? and how did that compare with other contemporary commercial modes of transport?

  • Wayne: It is my guess that the commercial airships tried to compete with the passenger shipping industry, and might have had some success but for the repeated air crashes that occurred.

    Note also that most of the business the airships got was for military applications. That might have changed (as it did with airplanes) but for the failures tainting the brand so much it could not recover.

    In the end, the bottom line was that the speed of airplanes simply made the slower airship uncompetitive at that time.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.
    Thank you.

    I do find that some granularity and factoids often help me relate historical costs in general.
    (Rail was all price-controlled (USA) in this period as well as air-mail subsidies for early aviation. Most people, could not really mass-consume airplane rides, until the airline business was deregulated in the late 70’s.)
    This is an interesting Topic and I will try to follow it!

  • Wayne: Just remember, the series is being written by a man about whom you have previously stated, “I would put forth the proposition, you fundamentally misunderstand freedom, liberty, and free-market economic systems.”

  • wayne

    I’m willing to read it through and see what conclusions are drawn.

  • wodun

    Since Doug is working up an analysis of new space, his economics and views on freedom might be better than on the topic of Obamacare.

    Airships are fascinating. Even though the title is a niche in time, airships still maintain a niche today and the future could see an airship renaissance.

    there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

    Advances in flight are just like any other business idea. They require an idea, proficiency to enact the idea, courage to take the risk, timing, funding, and technological readiness.

  • Kirk

    Wayne: Regarding cost, see this comparison between the Queen Mary and the Hindenburg:

    It states that a one way transatlantic ticket on the Hindenburg cost $400 per person for the two day flight, while the Queen Mary cost from $93 to $663 per person (depending on cabin class) for the five day sail.

  • wayne

    Thank you!
    $400 was 20 ounces of gold at that time.

  • Mitch S

    I suppose passage on a big airship in the 30’s was similar to flying the Concorde later in the 20th century.
    People willing to pay more for the speed and the cachet of being one of the few.
    Ultimately both ended up as national vanity projects that relied on gov’t support.
    Interesting that the early Zeppelins were what we’d today call “crowdfunded”.

  • wayne

    good stuff.

    -Our (US) aviation business was de-regulated in the late 1970’s, before that the “average person” just did not fly, it cost a lot.

    US Consumer Price Index 1800-present.

    (It’s very hard to construct a price-index over such a long time and quality-improvements and Inventions, are impossible to account for, but it gives you a good relative measure of what-stuff-cost, in the past.)

  • D. Messier


    Thanks for the shout out!


    A friend mentioned the Concorde to me last week as I was describing the series to him. I hadn’t thought about it. I looked into it, and it fits pretty well into what I’m writing about thematically. However, it doesn’t really fit with the way I’ve structured the series. You’ll see what I’m talking about as I roll out the rest of the stories. I might mention it in the final piece.

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