Exactly 100 years ago, in July 1919, at the sound of the bugle 700 men each holding the end of a rope passing above their heads, began walking slowly forward. The ropes were holding down a 640 foot, two football fields long airship called the R 34: ‘R’ for rigid and ‘34’ for the total number of airships the British government built in the first two decades of the 20th century. The slow process of bringing the airship out of it’s vast hanger took place in the middle of the night, so it would be cool enough to pump in the maximum two million cubic feet of hydrogen that was keeping this fragile leviathan floating over the 700 men A crew of 30 men, and one stow away cat, were about to make the first there and back journey by air across the Atlantic – eight years before Lindbergh made a one way trip by air and without a cat.
In the days before plastic, the only way to contain the hydrogen was to collect the intestines of 600,000 cattle (yes I checked again and that was the number) and beat them into large panels of non-porous material. Five engines, each less powerful than an average SUV, drove the ship along at about 60 miles an hour – if there was no headwind. Going to America took over 100 hours flying time, while coming back with some tail winds took 75 hours. The crew were celebrated in New York and the R 34 flew over the city, taking care to avoid the newly built Woolworth building.
My father was an engineer on the stern most engine of the R 33, the identical sistership of the R 34. It was a toss up which airship would make this double crossing of the Atlantic. My dad’s ship lost out. But he did have a friend on the R 34 who brought him a present. It was a tin of Valley Belt Yellow Cling Peaches made by McCarthy Jr & Co San Francisco. The peaches were eaten a century ago, but I still have the label. McCarthy and sons seem to have gone out of business.
When my father was called up into the RAF at the outbreak of War in 1939, the commander of the base ordered him in and said, “Pilot officer Potts, you’re a liar. You say you have flown for over 300 hours. I’m a Spitfire pilot and I’ve only flown for 33 hours. What are you talking about?” “Well Sir,” said my father, “It was in airships.” Both men laughed.
Whether it is medicine, or flying machines, forecasting the future of technology can be difficult. The cling peaches label is a tiny memento of an accomplishment that made headline news around the world at the time. It’s a common problem for experts to ignore new evidence and continue to embrace yesterday’s technology. Some experts thought it might be airships, not airplanes, that would carry passengers around the world. It took the crash of the R101 in 1930 and the German Hindenburg bursting into flames when landing near New York in 1937 to convince decision makers that aircraft, while less graceful and inspiring, might be the flying machine of the future. I’ve seen the same reliance in the AIDS community to accept that male circumcision would reduce HIV transmission and in the WHO to accept that misoprostol is the medicine of choice to prevent lethal postpartum hemorrhage in low resource settings. The two airship crashes killed fewer than a 100 people. Delays in changing policies in the AIDS community and WHO probably killed thousands.