The Hindenburg disaster - HISTORY
Year
1937

The Hindenburg disaster

The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crewmembers.

Frenchman Henri Giffard constructed the first successful airship in 1852. His hydrogen-filled blimp carried a three-horsepower steam engine that turned a large propeller and flew at a speed of six miles per hour. The rigid airship, often known as the “zeppelin” after the last name of its innovator, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, was developed by the Germans in the late 19th century. Unlike French airships, the German ships had a light framework of metal girders that protected a gas-filled interior. However, like Giffard’s airship, they were lifted by highly flammable hydrogen gas and vulnerable to explosion. Large enough to carry substantial numbers of passengers, one of the most famous rigid airships was the Graf Zeppelin, a dirigible that traveled around the world in 1929. In the 1930s, the Graf Zeppelin pioneered the first transatlantic air service, leading to the construction of the Hindenburg, a larger passenger airship.

On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany, for a journey across the Atlantic to Lakehurst’s Navy Air Base. Stretching 804 feet from stern to bow, it carried 36 passengers and crew of 61. While attempting to moor at Lakehurst, the airship suddenly burst into flames, probably after a spark ignited its hydrogen core. Rapidly falling 200 feet to the ground, the hull of the airship incinerated within seconds. Thirteen passengers, 21 crewmen, and 1 civilian member of the ground crew lost their lives, and most of the survivors suffered substantial injuries.

Radio announcer Herb Morrison, who came to Lakehurst to record a routine voice-over for an NBC newsreel, immortalized the Hindenberg disaster in a famous on-the-scene description in which he emotionally declared, “Oh, the humanity!” The recording of Morrison’s commentary was immediately flown to New York, where it was aired as part of America’s first coast-to-coast radio news broadcast. Lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favor after the Hindenberg disaster, and no rigid airships survived World War II.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

First four-minute mile

In Oxford, England, 25-year-old medical student Roger Bannister cracks track and field’s most notorious barrier: the four-minute mile. Bannister, who was running for the Amateur Athletic Association against his alma mater, Oxford University, won the mile race with a time of 3 ...read more

English Channel tunnel opens

In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age.The channel tunnel, or “Chunnel,” ...read more

Second Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli

After a first attempt to capture the village of Krithia, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, failed on April 28, 1915, a second is initiated on May 6 by Allied troops under the British commander Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston. Fortified by 105 pieces of heavy artillery, the Allied force ...read more

Students launch nationwide protest

Hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation shut down as thousands of students join a nationwide campus protest. Governor Ronald Reagan closed down the entire California university and college system until May 11, which affected more than 280,000 students on 28 ...read more

Roger Bannister breaks four-minutes mile

On this day in 1954, at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, medical student Roger Bannister becomes the first person in recorded history to run the mile in under four minutes.Roger Bannister was born in Middlesex on March 23, 1929. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to ...read more

FDR creates the WPA

On this day in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was just one of many Great Depression relief programs created under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had ...read more

Hangman George Maledon dies

George Maledon, the man who executed at least 60 men for “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, dies from natural causes in Tennessee.Few men actively seek out the job of hangman and Maledon was no exception. Raised by German immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, Maledon moved to Fort Smith, ...read more

Final episode of Friends airs on NBC

At 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times on this day in 2004, that familiar theme song (“I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts) announces the beginning of the end, as an estimated 51.1 million people tune in for the final original episode of NBC’s long-running comedy series ...read more

Hindenburg explodes in New Jersey

On this day in 1937, the German airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built, explodes as it arrives in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died in the fiery accident that has since become iconic, in part because of the live radio broadcast of the disaster.The ...read more

The theft of Duchess of Devonshire stirs interest

Thomas Gainsborough’s painting Duchess of DevonshireAdam Worth, whom Scotland Yard later called the “Napoleon of Crime,” and upon whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually based Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Dr. Moriarty, stole the artwork in order to come up with the bail to ...read more

Gorbachev reviews the Cold War

In an event steeped in symbolism, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews the Cold War in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri—the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 46 years before. Gorbachev mixed praise for the end of the Cold War with some ...read more