From Woody's Couch

Our Playbook on OSU History

Category: Notable events (page 1 of 3)

The Great Adventures of the Graf Zeppelin

In May of 1928, disaster hovered in the air above France. The Graf Zeppelin, a German airship marginally shorter than the Titanic, ten stories tall and filled with one hundred thousand cubic meters of hydrogen (the world’s most flammable gas) had lost several of its engines.

Graf Zeppelin above Tokyo

Graf Zeppelin flying over Tokyo on its around the
world flight.

The forward port engine had lost its main shaft and two other engines had immediately seized, leaving the ship floating on its last two engines. In response, Commander Hugo Eckener, a very skilled aviator, tried to return the airship to its base in Germany.   But then a fourth engine stopped, stranding the ship and its passengers with the Alps between themselves and safety.

Sketch of the Graf Zeppelin

Sketch of the side view and floor plan of the
Graf Zeppelin, reproduced here on a German postcard.

The choice was either to abandon ship, or to attempt an emergency landing in France. To land on the open ground would cause the ship to bounce, unless gas could be released fast enough to prevent it—a major fire risk. Instead Eckener maneuvered the Graf Zeppelin to an old French hangar, where French troops waited. The French helped the Graf Zeppelin to land but immediately locked down the base—“after all, the last Zeppelin landing in France had been a war machine.” [i]  The Graf Zeppelin and its passengers, as well as the two gorillas on board[ii], were saved.

It was an exciting time in the history of flight.  Two years before, Charles Lindbergh had flown from New York to Paris in about thirty-three hours, sparking a huge rise in popularity for aviators and a surge in the public’s interest in flight.  Commander Hugo Eckener and the Zeppelin Company wanted to build upon this fascination by using the Graf Zeppelin to circumnavigate the globe.

Freud, the radio operator aboard the Graf Zeppelin

Freud, the radio operator aboard
the Graf Zeppelin, dangling out a

The problem? They did not have enough money. Their solution came from the American news mogul William Hearst. Hearst wanted to capitalize upon the excitement that aviators and grand adventures sparked in the American public and, after some haggling, he offered to fund half of the money for the trip in exchange for the rights to the story in the U.S. and Great Britain. Hearst had three reporters on board: the famous explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, and Karl von Wiegand.

Hearst's reporters.

Hearts’s reporters from left to right: Captain
Wilkins, Lady Drummond Hay, Carl Von Weigand
and cameraman Robert Hartman.

Hearst also demanded that the trip begin and end in the U.S.  Eckener agreed, but planned to travel right back to the Zeppelin’s home base in Friedrichshafen, Germany after beginning in America, allowing for a complete circumnavigation from both Lakehurst and Friedrichshafen (thus satisfying both his home country and his primary sponsor).

This is how the Graf Zeppelin, after its inauspicious trial run in May, came to be traveling again across the Atlantic toward the U.S. on the 1st of August, 1929. Ninety hours after departure, the ship landed in Lakehurst, N.J. before returning to Germany. From Friedrichshafen, the Graf Zeppelin traversed Siberia before landing in Tokyo, Japan, and continuing across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, California. The last leg was a jaunt across the United States, back to Lakehurst.

Front view of the Graf Zeppelin

View of the Graf Zeppelin as it lands
in N.J. after completing its
circumnavigation of the world.

Commander Eckener in the control room.

Commander Eckener in the control
room on the Graf Zeppelin.

By this time, the Graf Zeppelin had run out of drinking water, though this did not stop Eckener from pushing forward. Instead the passengers subsisted on wine and other alcohol—substances still illegal on the U.S. soil below their feet. Upon its arrival, the Graf Zeppelin broke the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe and was met with massive fanfare and celebration.

George Hubert Wilkins, a famous Australian polar explorer and one of Hearst’s correspondents on the Graf Zeppelin, collected photographs and memorabilia related to the flight. Over two hundred of these images were recently acquired by The Ohio State University’s Polar Archives in 2015 and join the larger Wilkins Collection held by the repository. These images range include mass-printed German postcards; images of life aboard the airship; photos of the Graf Zeppelin in flight or in a hangar; as well as photos of crowds cheering and celebrations.

Wilkins himself is not featured in many images.  He is seen in only a few formal photographs, as well as several that depict him dining with Captain Eckener and his fellow correspondents. The exception is a fabulous photo in which Wilkins is examining a book of photographs in the dining area, with a small dog (one which greatly resembles an early Boston terrier) in his lap.

Wilkins, reading, with his dog in his lap.

Wilkins, reading, with his dog in his lap.

Such depictions of life aboard the ship are numerous among the collection and cover everything from work to play. There are images of one crew member rather smugly playing the piano accordion; the radio operator Fruend precariously hanging out a window with a dangling wire; Chef Manz cooking; Commander Eckener solemnly monitoring everything on the control room; and Lady Drummond Hay happily climbing one of the gondolas while the ship was in flight.

Lady Drummond Hay climbing one of the gondolas.

Lady Drummond Hay climbing one of
the gondolas.

Other images show the world in relation to the massive form of the Graf Zeppelin. Several images depict the Graf Zeppelin landing or taking off, surrounded by small white smudges that only vaguely look like people.  Another photograph, apparently taken from the Graf Zeppelin itself, shows the Zeppelin’s shadow, which looks rather like a large missile, over a field. Even from the air, the Zeppelin’s shadow is several times larger than the houses and barns on the ground. Some photos display the huge impact of the Graf Zeppelin’s flight, even without the Graf Zeppelin being the subject of the image. One such photo displays two long rows of U.S. sailors feasting after aiding in the landing and departure of the Graf Zeppelin. Another shows Japanese florists preparing flowers for those visiting the Graf Zeppelin while it was moored in Tokyo.

Japanese Florists

Japanese florists preparing flowers for the arrival of
the Graf Zeppelin.

Finally, the collection has printed memorabilia that Wilkins gathered, mostly postcards and tiny printed cards. These seem to be German in origin, given that all are captioned in German, and display wonderful drawings of the Graf Zeppelin’s plans or of the luxurious cabins and dining areas inside. One tiny image shows the Graf Zeppelin when its frame is only half formed, extending out toward the viewer in a spiral fashion, while unattached parts mimic its swirls on the ground.

frame of the Graf Zeppelin

The Graf Zeppelin as it was being built.

For more information about Sir George Hubert Wilkins, please visit the Polar Archives website:

[i] Nasht, Simon. 2005. The last explorer: Hubert Wilkins : Australia’s unknown hero. Sydney: Hodder, 195

[ii] These gorillas inspired one of the passengers, Merian Cooper, to create the movie King Kong.




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Twelve Days: Kleberg’s true colors shine through as a donor

(In celebration of the University Archives’ upcoming 50th Anniversary in 2015, we bring you “The Twelve Days of Buckeyes.” This is day 10 in a series of 12 blog posts highlighting the people who were instrumental in the creation and growth of the Archives.)

John Kleberg with the scarlet and gray ribbons, 1989

John Kleberg with the scarlet and gray ribbons, 1989

There is nothing more synonymous with being a Buckeye than the colors Scarlet and Gray. And the person Buckeyes can thank for preserving the earliest beginnings of those OSU colors is John Kleberg.

First, a little background on Kleberg: He came to OSU in 1973 as associate director of Public Safety, taking charge of the operations side of the Campus Police unit. In 1981, he was appointed as director of the University’s internal audit unit in the Office of Business and Finance.

Although his background is in law enforcement, he has been heavily involved in preserving OSU history since his retirement in 2000 as assistant vice president of Business and Finance. (He returned in 2001 as Special Assistant to the Vice President of Student Affairs.) For instance, he’s served on the committee that coordinated the program to record, preserve and restore works of art on campus. He’s also spent much of his university-related time after retirement in raising money and awareness for the historic Cooke Castle on Gibraltar Island in Put-in-Bay.

Cooke Castle was built by Jay Cooke, the Civil War financier who bought Gibraltar Island in 1864. There, the family entertained such dignitaries as Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, President Rutherford B. Hayes and General William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1925, Cooke’s daughter, Laura Barney, sold Gibraltar Island to then-OSU Board of Trustees member, Julius Stone, who immediately donated the property to the University to house a lake research facility that would become Stone Lab.

Cooke Castle, 2001

Cooke Castle, 2001

Kleberg has worked tirelessly to restore the historic Cooke Castle, and in fact, with his help, the first floor of the Castle, which had been closed for a number of years, is now open to the public at certain times. The Archives also has benefited from Kleberg’s interest in Cooke Castle; three years ago, he gave us a number of materials he’d gathered on Jay Cooke.

Kleberg has given a myriad of items to the Archives over the years. They often represent the more mundane history of a large educational institution – an old class microscope he picked up at a University surplus auction or two police badges from the Department of Public Safety.

Then, there was the truly one-of-a-kind historical artifact he donated that makes him a standout among donors: the original scarlet-and-gray ribbons that adorned the diplomas of the first graduating class in 1878.

Original scarlet and gray ribbons

The original scarlet and gray ribbons

When it was almost time for Commencement that year, the class assigned a committee of three to pick out a pair of sample ribbons to determine which color of ribbons would be tied around the diplomas. The original pair of scarlet-and-gray ribbons they chose were cut into three parts, and a section was given to each committee member as a memento. Years later, one of the members – Curtis Howard – found his and presented them to the University in a frame with a letter attached to the back explaining their significance. They were hung in Sullivant Hall, but as sometimes unfortunately happens, the framed ribbons went missing at one point.

In the late 1980s, a gentleman identifying himself only as an attorney representing an estate in Florida, showed up in Kleberg’s office with the ribbons and some documentation. Kleberg did some subsequent research and determined they were most probably part of the original ribbons. And then, he made sure they made it to the Archives.

Without his dedication to preserving OSU history, those ribbons may have ended up in Kleberg’s wastepaper basket, and Buckeyes would not have these priceless reminders of how we became so devoted to Scarlet and Gray. So for all his contributions to OSU, we give him a hearty thanks from the Archives!

Twelve Days: Having the right ‘supplies’ key to planning OSU’s centennial party

(In celebration of the University Archives’ upcoming 50th Anniversary in 2015, we bring you “The Twelve Days of Buckeyes”. This is day four in a series of 12 blog posts highlighting the people who were instrumental in the creation and growth of the Archives.)

Cake made for the University's Centennial Celebration, 1970

The University’s centennial celebration cake, 1970

When you are planning a party, you always make sure that you have everything ready before it starts, right? In the case of a regular party, you see that you have enough food, beverages, plates, napkins, etc.

Same thing with the University’s centennial celebration in 1970, only in this case it had to make sure it had the historical papers, photos and artifacts to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1970. Five years earlier, in 1965, the first University Archivist, Bruce Harding, was hired; a professional archivist was needed to properly manage the historical records as the University prepared to show off the legacy of its first 100 years. Particularly, photos were important, as they offered the basis of the “The First Hundred Years” book that was widely distributed for the event.

Centennial celebration container

Centennial celebration container

Coincidentally, as the University used the Archives to help it display its many historical legacies, the process of celebrating produced much-needed – and now often used – historical documents to be housed at the Archives. For instance, many OSU departments created centennial histories, which remain key resources for those doing administrative historical research.

And the celebration produced its own historical record: Not only does the Archives retain the various reports, proposals and other materials documenting the planning process, but it has a lot of really cool artifacts that demonstrate the way the University celebrated, such as a porcelain whiskey container with images of Orton Hall, Ohio Stadium and University Hall on it (at left).

Just an FYI: The University celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020. It’s never too early to plan a party!

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