U.S.S. Akron approaches mooring mast
The dirigible was invented at the last gasp of the era of heroic European exploration; Edwardian times or thereabouts. In my opinion, this is one of the great spiritual eras humanity has yet experienced. Everything superior in our present civilization peaked or dates from that era. From classical music, to capitalist industry, to modern science, to gentlemen’s clothing styles, to philosophy, to practical mathematics, to modern weapons; everything that is great about Western Civilization dates from around the time they invented the dirigible. When the history of the world is finally done, that time will be looked upon as being as defining as the golden age of Greece, the Italian Renaissance or the era of Augustus. Everything that came after was a repeat at best of what happened in those days. We don’t think of scientists without thinking of Einstein. We don’t think of industry without thinking of the early 20th century steel mill. We don’t think of men’s suits without thinking of old Saville Row. We don’t think of rifles which are appreciably different from those available in those days. Those days define our best qualities as certainly as the time of Marcus Furius Camillus defined the ancient Romans.
So it is with the Dirigible. This machine represented a sort of peak in mechanical embodiment of the adventurous spirit, when men would invent ridiculous machines, wear scarves and goggles, and go face the wild blue yonder with a giant bag of (generally explosive) gas, a latticework of the new wonder metal of aluminum, and some propellors. An airman was seen as a sailor of the skies; a much different thing from aeroplane pilot. There was no GPS. No weatherman of any use. Even radio was pretty wonky and primitive (and, in fact, on a hydrogen airship, quite a fire hazard). Survival of the airship depended on the mechanical genius, leadership skills and weather sense of the captain, and the teamwork and skill of a large crew. It didn’t always work out so well. Dirigibles were probably about as safe as the space shuttle, which is to say, not very.
When we watch science fiction today, these space romances often take place against the backdrop of what is essentially an airship, jazzed up with some knobs and buzzers. They’re big, they have lots of room in them, they have large crews and lots of workshops and peculiar looking technology, they get where they are going in a few days; shucks, many of them even look like airships. The V-2 rocket, which influenced how we think about what a space ship should look like, looked physically like a dirigible standing on its tail. There was no real reason for it to look that way (modern missiles are much more functional looking), except that the shape represents the vision of the future of that era.