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Category: Polar Archives (page 1 of 11)

Frozen Fridays: ‘Z’ is for Zeppelin!

This blog post is the final part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we featured some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors. Last year, Autumn Snellgrove interned at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program and worked with new materials acquired by the program. In short, she scanned and researched these materials and wrote two blog posts about them. This is one of them.

In May of 1937, an airship—the largest ever to fly—set out on its sixty-third flight, headed from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, N.J. This was supposed to be just another passenger flight carrying the well-to-do across the Atlantic Ocean. While landing, however, a spark ignited hydrogen leaking from a gas cell and created a huge mushroom of fire and smoke from the dirigible’s tail. In half a minute, the flames stripped the airship down to its metal frame and the carcass collapsed on the ground. Amazingly, half of the airship’s travelers survived. Sadly for those who did not survive the explosion, this particular airship was originally designed to contain non-flammable helium. The U.S., however, refused to export helium due to its trade sanctions against the Nazis. So the makers of the airship—the German Zeppelin Company—resorted to using hydrogen. The massive explosion was caught on film and promptly broadcast to the world. Today, we know this as the infamous Hindenburg Disaster.

Front view of the Graf Zeppelin

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

This disaster and the controversy surrounding it tend to overshadow the longer history of airships (also called dirigibles). An airship is a lighter-than-air craft which employs gas to fly. There are two types of airship: the ridged, metal-framed airships (like the Hindenburg) and non-ridged airships, frequently called blimps.

While airships have their origins in the 18th century, they did not really take off until World War I when Germany used its dirigibles for reconnaissance and bombing missions. While this proved largely ineffective (airships are highly susceptible to ground fires and bombing from high enough altitudes to avoid flames makes it hard to aim) the German airships lurked so large in public imaginations that they were explicitly banned from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

Most of the dirigibles employed by the Germans in World War I were produced by the Zeppelin Company (who were also the makers of the Hindenburg). This company and their creations have a greater legacy than simply blowing things up, however. After barely surviving Germany’s forced airship ban, the Zeppelin Company produced one of their largest and most notable dirigibles: the LZ-127, also known as the Graf Zeppelin. Like the later Hindenburg, this airship was simply massive; ten stories high and barely shorter that the Titanic, the Graf Zeppelin cast a mountain-sized shadow while flying. This became the airship which would ignite modern commercial flying.

Incomplete Graf Zeppelin frame

Image from a German postcard,
showing the frame of the Graf
Zeppelin while it was being built.

In order to gain publicity and future financing for his company after years of war, Dr. Hugo Eckener (who had taken over when Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin died) planned an incomparable trip: a circumnavigation of the world. Eckener was rapidly joined by the news mogul William Hearst, who frequently publicized spectacular events to promote his own newspapers. In exchange for funding half the trip, Hearst got exclusive rights to the story in the U.S. and Great Britain. Hearst sent three reporters on the trip to cover all the bases: the famous correspondent Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, Karl von Wiegand and the Arctic explorer Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins, who has an innate love of science and weather, specialized in the technical and scientific side of flying a balloon through poorly understood skies. As the trip progressed, Wilkins became fascinated with Dr. Eckener’s understanding of the weather and how Eckener used his knowledge of the wind to catch the fastest air currents.

When the Graf Zeppelin began its record-breaking flight, it carried twenty passengers (who paid over ten thousand dollars for the privilege and who came from ten different countries), thousands of pieces of mail and all the necessary supplies for an emergency landing with it. The ship’s route took it from New Jersey across the Atlantic to Germany then over Siberia to Tokyo before flying on to California and returning to Lakehurst, N.J. This circumnavigation broke the previous record, with the whole trip lasting just over twenty-one days and the flying time clocking in at a mere twelve days.

Sketch of the Graf Zeppelin

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

The Graf Zeppelin was luxuriously outfitted for this trip with a full kitchen, nice passenger rooms and a dining hall. The passenger accommodations, navigational room and the engines all resided in the dirigible’s gondola, which hangs below the gas cells. However, the ship was also unheated (probably a good thing as it was flammable); when it flew over Siberia, even Wilkins, who had lived in Antarctica, was forced to don a coat.

The Graf Zeppelin made another famous trip four years later, in 1931, when it flew over the Arctic. The Graf Zeppelin was far from the first dirigible to travel over the top of the world; people had been trying it since 1907. Merely five years earlier, Roald Amundsen and the Italian airship Norge had been the first to successfully cross the Arctic. Dr. Eckener, however, wanted to aid science as much as he wanted a publicity stunt. So in 1931, with a team of scientists, the Graf Zeppelin set out.

Freud, the radio operator aboard the Graf Zeppelin

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

Originally the airship planned to meet up and exchange passengers with the submarine Nautilus. The Nautilus was Hubert Wilkin’s submarine, which he proposed to take under the Arctic ice from Spitzbergen to Alaska. For various reasons, Wilkins was unable to complete this rendezvous. The Graf Zeppelin, however, proved much more successful than Wilkins. In preparation, the airship had been stripped of its luxuries to provide room for the necessary scientific equipment. Dirigibles were better equipped to handle the heavy scientific equipment than airplanes of the time, given their relative stability. While flying over the Arctic, the team of scientists made meteorological observations and studied the Earth’s magnetic field. The Zeppelin was also equipped with a pair of cameras which took nine images every few seconds. These images allowed for a better mapping and understanding of the Arctic landscape. Overall, the Graf Zeppelin’s Arctic flight was a grand success and upon its return the ship and crew found a hero’s welcome waiting for them, one that included the first man to fly over the North Pole, Richard Byrd (although, he used an airplane).

The Zeppelin’s very public successes kicked off a new era of passenger flight. In 1931, the Graf Zeppelin and the Zeppelin Company began flying from Germany to South America and back[i]. By 1936, these trips became a bi-weekly event. As the service became ever more popular (reducing the travel time from weeks to mere days) the Graf Zeppelin became “the first regularly scheduled, non-stop, intercontinental airline service in the history of the world.”[ii] The Graf Zeppelin alone would make 136 trips across the South Atlantic over its lifetime. The passenger flights of the Zeppelin Company came to an abrupt end after the explosion of the Hindenburg, however, and the legacy of commercial flying was handed over to airplanes.

For more information about Richard Byrd, Hubert Wilkins, the Graf Zeppelin or polar exploration, please visit the Polar Archives.

Written by Autumn Snellgrove and published by John Hooton.

[i] They traveled to South America because Brazil and several surrounding countries had a large German population.


Happy World Environment Day!

Happy World Environment Day! In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly designated June 5 as a day to focus and take active steps towards the preservation of the Earth’s often too fragile environment.[1] With that focus in mind, we would like to draw attention to the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.

The namesake of the Byrd Polar and
Climate Research Center, Admiral
Richard E. Byrd.

The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center is the Ohio State University’s oldest research institution. Founded in 1960 as the Institute of Polar Studies, the Center was renamed in 1987 in honor of one of the greatest Polar explorers of the twentieth century.[2] Admiral Richard E. Byrd was a man of many feats. An adventurous sort, Byrd was one of the few contenders vying for the status as the first man to fly over the North Pole. Admiral Byrd claims to have flown over the North Pole in May of 1926 in his plane Josephine Ford along with his copilot Floyd Bennett.[3] The claim has been controversial almost from the moment Byrd announced the achievement, but became especially contentious after Byrd’s death in 1957.  Undisputed however, are Byrd’s numerous contributions to Antarctic exploration. Byrd led no less than five expeditions to Antarctica. His many “firsts” and accomplishments include: established “Little America, “the base of operations during his first expedition from 1928-1930 that would live on in subsequent expeditions, was the first to fly over the South Pole in 1928, sent the first radio broadcasts from Antarctica to the American mainland in 1934,  and would be nicknamed the “Mayor of Antarctica”.[4]

Carrying on Admiral Byrd’s legacy of Polar study and exploration, the Byrd Center’s mission is “to conduct multi-disciplinary research, offer enhanced educational opportunities, and provide outreach activities with the goal of promoting understanding of the ever-evolving Earth System.”[5] Scientists at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center have traveled the entire globe researching the Earth’s climate. They study current and past environmental patterns from not just the Poles, but also glaciers in the tropics and other important ecological resources.

Dr. Lois Jones and her team stand before the marker
denoting the South Pole.

The Byrd Center’s Archival Program was officially established in 1990.  The cornerstone of the program is the Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, acquired by the University in the mid-1980s.  Today, the Polar Archives houses much more than just the papers of Admiral Byrd. The achievements of many great polar explorers are remembered in the Archives, including collections for Dr. Frederick Cook, Sir George Hubert Wilkins, and even Dr. Lois M. Jones, the leader of the first all-female expedition to Antarctica! The Archives contains memorabilia, items from expeditions, papers, and many other artifacts from polar explorers and their adventures. All of these items are available to the public upon request; the job of any archives is to both preserve and make available primary sources from the past.

For more information on the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center or the BPCRC Archival Program, please check out their respective websites! The Archival Program has some materials online and also is open to the public. The Byrd Center itself frequently gives tours of its facilities and strives to conduct public outreach.

Written by John Hooton

[1]   “World Environment Day,” United Nations, accessed June 2, 2017.

[2] “About BPCRC”, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, accessed June, 2, 2017.

[3] Autumn Snellgrove, “B is for Byrd,” Frozen Fridays, November 4, 2016, accessed June 2, 2017.

[4] Snellgrove, “B is for Byrd.”

[5] “About BPCRC.”

Frozen Fridays: ‘Y’ is for You!

This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors

Mount Erebus in Antarctica, as
seen in 1970.

Here at the Polar Archives, our job is to help our users locate primary source documentation on topics that can occasionally be deemed a controversial.   Even if we had opinions on these subjects, we typically don’t share them. However, we are also of the opinion that Climate Change is not a controversial issue. It simply is.  The Polar Archives is a collaboration between the Ohio State University Libraries and the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, and as such, we feel that it is our duty and obligation to use our platform to inform. For this Frozen Fridays, we will be focusing on you. We will be presenting you with information about Climate Change, why you should care, and what you can do to help stop and possibly reverse Climate Change.

For the research associated with this post, we contacted scientists at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. For this particular issue, we thought it much more appropriate to contact scientists with doctorates rather than relying on the understanding of an undergraduate studying history (me). We asked them some fairly basic questions about Climate Change. Their responses are summarized by the following.

Miers Glacier, seen here with Miers Lake in 1970, is
one such glacier that is at risk of melting.

Climate Change, also known as Global Warming, is the phenomenon in which the global average temperatures over the past century have continually been increasing. In the past one hundred years, the global average temperature has increased by nearly 1.8 ºF. Though that may sound like a small increase to some, Byrd Polar Education and Outreach Director. Jason Cervenec of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center points out that “we are currently on track for the planet to warm by another 7.2ºF (4ºC) by 2100.” A jump of that size, Cervenec points out, is the difference between an ice age and a non-ice age.[1]

Furthermore, the jump of just below two degrees has caused numerous ill effects. The most obvious effect is the rising of the sea level. The sea level has increased by eight inches over the past one hundred years. As the Earth gets warmer, so do its oceans. Warmer water expands to take up more space. Additionally, more water is being added to the oceans as ice from ice reservoirs and from both the North and South Polar melts. We have also seen an increase in severe weather events, such as hurricanes, over the past few decades. Here in Ohio, for example, we have seen a seventy-eight percent increase in nuisance flooding since 1951. Ohio is also likely to see lower grain yield and field viability, as well as an increasing need to cool and water livestock as temperature increases.[2]

Another view of the snow and ice covered Mount
Erebus, circa 1970.

As Cervenec points out, the evidence supporting the existence of Climate Change is overwhelming. He recommends going to this site for supporting evidence of Climate Change. Most climate scientists agree that Climate Change is real and currently happening.

Although wider societal steps need to be taken to lower carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Cevernec recommends the following steps that individuals can take to help slow down Climate Change:[3]

  1. Have an energy audit done on your home or business and take actions identified (such as air sealing and installing insulation) to reduce your energy consumption. Many of these actions pay themselves back within a few months to years.
  2. Consider replacing your traditional light bulbs with LEDs, which both save energy and need to be replaced less frequently. When you replace appliances, look for the Energy Star certification.
  3. Consider your transportation options and take advantages of opportunities to walk, bike, or use the bus.
  4. Turn off lights and appliances when they are not in use. Adjust your thermostat when you are away from home to avoid unnecessary heating and cooling.
  5. Look for options to purchase your energy from renewable sources.

    Antarctica, like many wild places, is filled with
    beautiful views that we must work to preserve.

The Center conducts educational outreach along with its research into the world’s climate. There are several upcoming events, including a Science and Technology Festival and two developmental workshops for educators scheduled for the next two months. Byrd Polar’s website also includes an extensive page filled with educational materials that can be used for either educational or developmental purposes. And as always, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research. Center frequently gives tours to both public and private groups.

Written by John Hooton.

[1] Jason Cervenec, e-mail message to author, May 3, 2017.

[2] Jason Cervenec. May 2017.

[3] Jason Cervenec. May 2017.

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