Ed Regis on the hydrogen airship and other “pathological technologies.”


The Hindenburg, May 6, 1937.

When the Hindenburg burst into flames and crashed to the ground on the evening of May 6, 1937, it was a terrific shock to those on the scene, not to mention those who viewed the recorded film in subsequent days. But the accident shouldn’t have been a surprise. By the spring of 1937, twenty-six hydrogen airships had been destroyed by fire, in some instances killing everyone on board.

In “Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology” (Basic Books), author Ed Regis explains why a technology as flawed as the hydrogen airship persisted for more than four decades. One could argue that the technology should have been abandoned at least seven years earlier, following the fiery demise of the British airship R 101, an accident that has received renewed attention in recent months thanks to British heavy-metal band Iron Maiden, which included an 18-minute song (“Empire of the Clouds”) on its new double-album (The Book of Souls) that deftly relates how and why the R 101 met its sad end.

Notably, British air minister, Lord Thomson, had described R 101 as “safe as a house—except for the millionth chance.” In hindsight, it’s clear that Thomson was tempting fate, his bold statement akin to describing Titanic as “unsinkable” or labeling the Iroquois Theatre as “absolutely fireproof.” As it turns out, that millionth chance came on R 101’s maiden long-distance flight (from England to India). “Eight hours after takeoff the R 101 crashed into a hillside in France, where it exploded and burned,” notes Regis, “killing forty-eight of those aboard, including Lord Thomson.”

To Regis, the hydrogen airship is a shining example of what he describes as a pathological technology, “one whose obvious and sizable risks [are] ignored, discounted, minimized, and swept under the rug.” In “Monsters”—as well as the following Failure Interview—Regis relates his definition of a pathological technology and identifies several examples, including one where disaster hasn’t yet come to pass.

How do you define a “pathological technology”?
A pathological technology is a triumph of emotional infatuation over reason, logic, and the unpleasant facts of the real world. It has four defining characteristics. First, such technologies usually center on objects or processes that are physically huge: the Hindenburg; a particle accelerator that’s 54 miles in circumference [the Superconducting Super Collider]; or a starship that would hold thousands of people. Things that large are inherently risky.

A second characteristic of pathological technologies is that they exist within and are a product of a virtually paralyzing state of emotional fixation, a condition bordering on hypnotic enthrallment.

Third, because their proponents are so emotionally star-struck by and committed to their pet projects, they resist coming to grips with their drawbacks and thus routinely underestimate their costs, risks, downsides, and dangers.

Finally, the costs of a pathological technology—whether it be in dollars, threats to health, impact on the environment, or human lives lost or at risk—are wildly disproportionate to the benefits supposedly conferred. 

What made you choose the Hindenburg as the quintessential example of a pathological technology?
The Hindenburg embodies all of these attributes to a remarkable degree. The craft was physically huge, longer from end to end than the U.S. Capitol building, including the central rotunda and House and Senate chambers. That immense size, in turn, produced a hypnotic spell upon those who saw it. It was not so much an aircraft but rather a small world overhead, a mesmerizing, cosmic presence that transfixed the beholder. And because the owners and operators of the Hindenburg were under that same spell, they routinely underplayed the craft’s dangers and hyped up the travel experience. Although the Hindenburg did make several transatlantic crossings, it put passengers at the risk of fiery death every time. It was, after all, filled with seven million cubic feet of hydrogen gas, a flammable, explosive substance.

What was it like to travel aboard a hydrogen airship back in the heyday of the airship?
It was a schizophrenic experience. The craft’s public areas—the dining room, the promenades, the lounges—were opulent and palatial, like those of an ocean liner. The private areas—that is, the passenger cabins—were so small as to be like prison cells: they had folding bunk beds, tiny washstands, and little else. A single shower head served all seventy-two passengers aboard [the Hindenburg], as if they were in a commune, or attending a summer camp for kids.

What made hydrogen airships so prone to accidents?
Aside from the obvious insanity of putting passengers inside a vessel filled with hydrogen gas, there was an extreme mismatch between the size and scale of the craft and the size of those who were nominally in control of it—that is, people. It took two- to three-hundred ground crew members to hold a zeppelin (by ropes attached to the hull), and even then the craft was sometimes torn away by wind gusts. These things were accidents waiting to happen, flying bombs.

Germany, the British, and the U.S. all had airship programs. Which country’s program fared worst and why?
The Americans were the all-time greatest failures when it came to airships, [even though] American airships were inflated with helium instead of hydrogen, and helium does not burn, as it’s an inert gas. While thirty-six people died in the Hindenburg disaster, it was the U.S. airship Akron, which went down off the New Jersey coast in 1933, that took the greatest number of human lives. The Akron flew into a thunderstorm, broke up in flight, then fell into the sea and sank, with only three survivors among the seventy-six onboard. Believe it or not, that disaster did not end the American airship program, which continued for two more years.

People remember the Hindenburg as the end of the zeppelin era, but isn’t it true that similar airships were flown into the 1940s?
The Hindenburg had a sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin II. It was the same size as the Hindenburg, and filled with an equal amount of explosive hydrogen. Yet even after the Hindenburg disaster, the Germans flew the Graf Zeppelin II with passengers aboard. It was not until Reich air minister Hermann Goering ordered its destruction in 1940 that the airship era came to an end.

Are there any other technologies or initiatives you view as comparable to the Hindenburg? If I recall, one of the projects you highlight in the book is Project Plowshare.
In the annals of pathological technology, no scheme was more obviously harebrained than Project Plowshare, which was sponsored and run by the U.S. government between 1957 and 1974. The idea was to do large-scale excavation projects—digging out new harbors, canals, rivers, and road cuts—by detonating hydrogen bombs. In retrospect, it’s amazing that it took the government seventeen years to realize that the idea was insane.

Can you identify a pathological technology where disaster has yet to be realized but where you think the future is bleak?
The booby prize goes to the 100 Year Starship project, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The plan is to develop, build, and launch a manned spacecraft to another star system within the next hundred years. The idea of “going to the stars” sounds wonderful; it’s the ultimate romantic fantasy. The unpleasant facts, however, are that there’s no good reason for going to the stars, and there’s no viable means of getting us there. If the starship’s velocity were as great as that of Voyager I, which is now receding from us at more than 38,000 miles per hour, it would take that craft 73,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, which in any case has no known planets in orbit around it for people to land on and colonize. Nobody knows how much an interstellar spacecraft would cost, or how to keep its human population alive for the time it would take to get wherever it’s going. For these and many other reasons, interstellar travel is one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived.