Some Interesting Ideas From The 1930s That Never Really Caught On – Part 1

Dear reader,

It has been rather a while since we last spoke; nearly three years in fact. To give some perspective on how much I have been putting this off, and the spectacular laziness with which the phrase “we’ll get around to that” has been bandied around by myself, the last time I sat down to write an article for this site, the UK was between Covid lockdowns, Boris Johnson was still very firmly Prime Minister, and if one mentioned Russia, all people thought about was their slightly dodgy Sputnik vaccine then in development.

Nobody, least of all myself, can tell how long this sudden burst of activity will last, but at the very least, welcome to the rather redesigned, slightly newspaper-like Peculiarly Pete, where the rambling will continue.

In numerous ways, the world we live in today has been defined by the Second World War. For example, take the device you are reading this article on now; no matter whether it is a laptop, desktop, smartphone, tablet, or even a ZX Spectrum, it is some form of digital, reprogrammable computer. This technology, so dominant over the world today, may well never have come to be had WW2 never occurred. Indeed, both the British and the American programmes which resulted in the first digital computers had military applications in mind (although ours was kept a state secret until many decades later).

But there are umpteen examples. About a week ago, I took a trip to Portugal, and to get there I spent several boring hours on a Ryanair flight; boring hours they may have been, but they were cheaper and shorter hours than would have been possible before the invention of the jet engine. While it is true that several different teams were working on these before the war, it would have taken far, far longer for these to come to production without it, and it is possible that their early issues may have proved too expensive.

Meanwhile in the field of geopolitics, almost nothing makes sense without the Second World War. The People’s Republic of China we see today is the end result (after many, many twists and turns) of a chain of events which would have turned out very differently had Japan not invaded the country. Many other events in the modern world lend themselves to the Cold War, a direct result of the strange relationship between the allies in that war.

It is clear therefore that the Second World War was a truly watershed event. Logically it follows (as you, my intelligent and very perceptive reader will have noticed) that the world beforehand must have been very different, and this logical assumption is largely true.

In this world the defining event was the First World War. Perusing the issues of Popular Mechanics of the time, it is very clear that the threat of gas warfare was present in the 1930s imagination, just as it was present in the WW1 reality, and with 20 years of technical developments their descriptions at times sound apocalyptic.

Fortunately, we know now that all powers involved in the eventual conflict refrained from using gas on the battlefield. Why was this? It is difficult to say precisely. While the Nazis did use gas in the Holocaust, even with their enemies closing in on Berlin, they did not use it against enemy troops or even enemy civilians. This was despite developing the first nerve agent, Sarin, a far more deadly and painful substance than anything any of the First World War armies had access to.

I suspect the reasons are partially ideological, and partially practical. Ideological, because Hitler had himself been gassed during WW1 (and indeed at the end of it was in hospital recovering from such an attack), and may have decided not to inflict such on other soldiers; and practical, because quite apart from the problem of protecting one’s own troops, it was very clear that the allies could produce more of everything, including gas, than the Germans.

Meanwhile, those with an eye on the future terrified themselves with visions of aerial bombardment from new, fast bombers that no fighter could possibly hope to catch. Casualties, it was assumed, would be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands from each raid; thankfully, their assumptions on the speed of bombers, the uselessness of fighters, and the accuracy of unguided bombs, proved to be unfounded. World War 2 bombing raids largely had to pick city-sized targets to give them a good chance of hitting, and even then, it would take the invention of the atomic bomb to give a realistic chance of the expected casualties.

Of course many had much more immediate concerns; the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression plunged millions into poverty, and even by the end of the 1930s many were still struggling. Just like today, governments were trying various schemes to create skills, employment and opportunity, but also like today, these met with varying degrees of success. But now it has been acknowledged, we shall not spend this entire article going on about it; partly because others would do a much better job, but mostly because it is already a very recognisable part of the 1930s.

One of the revolutions already underway was that of motor vehicles. In previous times, the default (and largely only) form of land transport was the railway, but cars were improving substantially and becoming available to a far wider audience than ever before. Even if you were not lucky enough to be able to afford a car, new roads, paved with materials like asphalt and concrete, offered other possibilities; buses and lorries offered employment and indeed enjoyment to many. That many of these modern roads were constructed on the taxpayer’s dime, and in pure profit and loss terms were quite poor investments, was not mentioned.

It thus became imperative that the railways develop a response in order to retain passengers and absolutely crucial farebox revenue. At the same time, the idea of using aerodynamic design to reduce drag (in various ways, many of which had almost no scientific value) was in vogue, to the point where even everyday household items such as radios and toasters were being ‘streamlined’.

It was thus that the streamlined train was born. Starting with smaller items (railcars, the odd locomotive etc.), and eventually developing into complete trains, streamliners came of age in the 1930s. In many cases, this was merely a marketing exercise; the streamlining designed by Henry Dreyfuss for the 20th Century Limited (touted at the time with the nicely unprovable moniker of ‘World’s Most Famous Train’) almost certainly had no effect on drag, but it was sufficiently striking that it has become iconic of the era and indeed it graces the head of this article.

Other approaches were more scientific; following a visit to Germany to see the new diesel railcars there, Sir Nigel Gresley, the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LNER in Britain, decided to combine the drag reduction effect of streamlining with the greater power then available from steam engines. The result were the A4 class of Mallard fame, whose streamlining did have a measurable impact on performance.

The idea of special, much, much faster trains with facilities unavailable elsewhere (for example, the A4-hauled Coronation of the period featured swivel armchairs in first class), did not last, at least not in streamlined form, for very long.

Again, there were many different reasons. Quite apart from the fashion for streamlining beginning to die away after the war, there were myriad operational difficulties, at least in the UK. Having a small handful of extremely fast trains with all the rest still travelling at the same speeds makes for a signalling nightmare, and the braking technology of the day compounded these issues, with stopping distances making life extremely difficult.

In the US, with steam swapped for new diesel power, streamlined trains survived for many years following the war. The market was rather different, with vast distances being covered by a small number of trains (for example, Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles only became a daily service in the late 1940s), and with less dense traffic to get in the way of, the extra speed was less of a problem. Unfortunately, with the advent of interstate highways and the aforementioned jet aircraft, such services would struggle and few made it into the 1960s in any form, let alone streamlined.

In the years since, particularly as regular speeds have increased, the use of aerodynamic design has made something of a comeback, and certainly today’s high speed railways would not be feasible without at least a token nod to drag reduction. Still, the modern (and far more sensible) fashion is to have more consistently timed trains, and the kinds of luxuries the streamliners of the 30s exuded are now present only rarely on charter trains.

Elsewhere in the world of transport, things were even more different to today. Transcontinental travel was a far more difficult prospect given the limitations of technology; aeroplanes did of course exist but they were slow, their range was generally small, and air travel on them was a noisy, shaky, and often dangerous experience at the start of the 1930s.

But things were beginning to change; monoplanes (that is, aeroplanes with just one set of wings) were replacing biplanes, and speed and range were increasing as a result. Engine power was constantly increasing, and by the end of the decade engines which could touch or even exceed 1,000 hp were becoming commercially available. Further, navigational aids which could make flight safer, particularly based upon radio, were beginning to be introduced, even if they could not always be relied upon (the last flight of Amelia Earhart is evidence of that).

The world was still not ready for commercial air travel, however. There were very few long, paved runways anywhere in the world; these were even rare in the United States in which the most progress had been made. As an alternative, for the few who could afford to use aeroplanes, the only solution was to use a completely different medium from which to access the sky; the sea.

Thus it was that the flying boats of this era at last crossed the Atlantic in one flight (with passengers, that is), with a rivalry developing between the Boeing-built ‘Clippers’ of Pan American airways and the Short-built ‘Empire’ flying boats of Britain’s Imperial Airways. Just like with the streamlined trains, it was imperative to justify the high ticket prices, and therefore luxury features like berths, dining rooms, even promenades (albeit rather small ones) proliferated.

One might wonder why flying boats are so rare today; after all, why would one rely on runways when the sea is so abundant, not to mention all the lakes in the world?

Well, there are downsides to the flying boat idea; for a start, if the aircraft has to float also, the shape that must be arrived at is not the ideal one for aerodynamics. There are other issues too; seawater is highly corrosive, and the sea is a bit wet and un-solid, which means that flying boats can be tricky to maintain. The crew must be trained in how to manoeuvre both in the air and on the water, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

All this said, the main reason they disappeared (despite brave attempts such as the Saunders Roe Princess) is the proliferation of prepared runways following the Second World War. The Allies in particular made great use of airborne transport and built or substantially improved hundreds of airfields across the world, which would form the basis of the explosion in civil aviation in the 1950s and later.

Many of you, dear readers, might think this is where our airborne stories end, content to watch land planes sail along today and make wistful comments about a 90-year old world none of us were a part of. But no, we are not finished, not just yet, because there are other ways of travelling in the sky.

Back in the 18th Century, long before the Wright brothers, the first demonstration of human-carrying flight occurred when the Montgolfier brothers discovered that if air was heated, its density was reduced, and thus it would float above the surrounding air. To put it briefly; they had invented the hot air balloon. Such things were initially put to use either for amusement or for allowing militaries to see over the horizon, and in both roles their invention met with moderate success.

However, the 19th Century would see two key developments which would turn an amusement into a somewhat serious form of transport. Firstly, gases even less dense than hot air were discovered and generated (notably hydrogen and helium), which could therefore lift even more weight in the same vehicle; and secondly, a device which could turn a dense, liquid fuel into movement was created: the internal combustion engine. With these developments in hand, the Airship became a possibility.

While numerous countries experimented with airships, undoubtedly the most successful nation to build airships was Germany. Even before the First World War, it was possible to travel across Germany by airship, long before the advent of commercial airlines using aeroplanes, and during the war Zeppelins (named after their designer von Zeppelin) even became some of the first aircraft of any kind to engage in strategic bombing.

Following the war, Germany’s airship industry was forced to build airships as part of war reparations, while other nations (notably Britain) tried to turn the technology into a viable transport system around their colonial empires. While the other nations failed, with high profile disasters such as the R101, Germany dug deep, having to support the ailing industry with subsidies and even public subscriptions; the end result was LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, first flying in the late 1920s.

The exploits of this airship in the 1930s are deserving of their own article, and perhaps I will write one in future, but suffice to say she was successful, becoming the first airship to circumnavigate the world, being repaired in flight in an extremely daring fashion to complete the trip. She would go on to maintain a regular airship service between Germany and Brazil, something which would have been absolutely impossible with aeroplanes of that day.

But Germany’s airship industry was planning bigger and better things; in 1932 construction was begun on an even more capable ship, and this one you may have heard of; LZ 129 Hindenburg. Eventually requiring substantial backing from the Nazi party (whom the Zeppelin company chairman, Hugo Eckener, personally disliked), she was completed in 1936, and in a matter of months pressed into service on the Atlantic runs to New York and Brazil.

Hindenburg offered a far smoother, more luxurious alternative to the still-developing flying boats, and was around twice as fast as the ocean liners steaming down below. Some of the trappings of the ocean liner were retained; she featured promenade decks, a grand piano, a restaurant with silver service, even a smoking room and cocktail bar, and despite the price of the tickets (several thousand pounds each way in today’s money), Hindenburg was a compelling option.

Unfortunately, the end came for Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. While attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station following an electrical storm, a small spark caused the lifting gas, hydrogen, to ignite, and the whole ship was consumed by flame in seconds. The incredible fact of the day was not that this had happened; but that some of the passengers and crew survived; alas, transatlantic airship travel did not, with even the ever-reliable Graf Zeppelin being retired shortly thereafter.

While the issues with hydrogen as a lifting gas could have been solved (helium, another lifting gas, was what the Hindenburg was originally designed to use, and is inert), there were some fundamental problems with the idea of airship travel.

Firstly, even assuming everything worked, airships were very labour intensive to operate, really more like a ship than a conventional aircraft. The bridge crew, for instance, included separate people working both the elevators and the rudder, not to mention an officer of the watch, and a gas board to monitor to check for leaks and purity of the gas. There were also 4 diesel engines to be monitored, not to mention separate navigational equipment, and yet more crew on standby to make repairs to the canvas. Once the ship’s crew had been assembled, they then also required stewards to look out for the passengers in the luxury expected; combine all this and it was not at all unusual for the crew to outnumber the passengers.

Even without the crew, these ships were farcically large for their capacity (as required by something literally lighter than the air it displaces); Hindenburg could accommodate a measly 70 passengers, but was over 3 times the length of a modern Boeing 747 (which can accommodate literally hundreds).

There have been numerous attempts to revive the idea of commercial airships since (their huge loiter time and ability to come to a stand do potentially have uses), but so far none has succeeded, and it seems very likely to stay that way.

In any case, with the word counter having merrily ticked to well over 2500, now seems as good a time as any to sign off. Next time in this little series, we’ll have a good ramble about some other interesting airships, take a good look at their sea-based counterparts, and ponder some of the might-have-beens had history taken a slightly different turn.

All that remains now though is to wish you an excellent day, thank you for reading, and hope that if you did enjoy this, you might pass it on.


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