In the last couple of weeks I’ve given two seminars on my airships work, which has been a great opportunity to push forward my thinking a little bit with a view to getting some more writing done on the topic over the summer. Thanks to the good people of QUB Geography and the IHR Transport and Mobility History seminar for their kind hospitality!
In thinking about what the story of British imperial airshipping can tell us about the process of sociotechnical change, I’ve found myself drawn to the idea of ‘hopeful monstrosities’. Frank Geels and Wim Smit take the idea from Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches, and use it to describe technologies which can demonstrably fulfil some social function, but which continually come up short somehow. Nonetheless, they continue to exercise a powerful hold over shared expectations of technological futures.
We can certainly detect this in the case of airships – despite numerous disasters, mishaps and near misses, they retained a powerful hold over those who wanted to re-make the world with new technologies of mobility. Arguably, they retain something of that hold to this day, whether in ideas about new kinds of sustainable aviation or in the retrofuturism of steampunk.
However, there are other senses in which we can think of airships – and specifically Britain’s imperial craft – as ‘monstrous’.
One is a straightforward notion of size. The two new ships, R.100 and R.101, were spectacularly big compared to their predecessors. For their designers, this was a point of pride – old and new engineering scaled up to previously unimaginable magnitudes; ships fit for the world’s biggest empire, and able to easily carry dozens of passengers in the utmost luxury.
Others were sceptical of this ballooning of airship proportions. For the Air Ministry’s chief critic E.F. Spanner, the size and shape of the new craft could only mean structural and aerodynamic instability. The massive areas which the outer fabric would have to cover unsupported made the whole thing liable to damage, and thus to upsetting the aerodynamics (with potentially fatal consequences). Furthermore, German designers had insisted on relatively narrower, more sausage-like shapes; their British counterparts had moved to a fatter profile – a decision which critics like Spanner feared could only create problems for flight in choppy atmospheric conditions.
When R.100 made it across the Atlantic to Canada it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the public of Montreal. Three hundred thousand came to see the ship at the mast. However, the airship was decried as “the monster” in the French-Canadian press. Here, its size, as well as the pomp and ceremony which greeted its visit, was taken as symbolic of Britain’s continued imperial hold over Canada, and its suppression of other claims to sovereignty. The press had it quite right – this was a technology quite openly designed to knit together the ‘Anglosphere’ into closer union, and to secure British hegemony in a world where geopolitical plates were shifting.
But there’s another sense in which these ships were ‘monstrous’ – one that touches on recent debates in science studies about hybridity, assemblage, and relationality.
We can take the term ‘monster’ to refer to entities which transcend or disrespect conventional distinctions between nature/culture, human/nonhuman, technology/environment. One of the things that initially drew me to the histories and geographies of imperial airshipping was the fact that this is an aircraft that achieves lift by becoming part of the atmosphere – by enveloping a quantity of gas and then, by regulating the temperature and pressure of that gas in relation to the air outside, entering into a relationship of balanced equilibrium. An airship stays afloat in changing conditions by actively changing the material constitution of itself – venting gas, dropping ballast, seeking or avoiding warm sunshine.
An airship is thus a weirdly hybrid thing – like a balloon, as Derek McCormack describes them, its envelopment of gas sets it apart from the atmosphere, but rather like a cloud, it is never entirely discontinuous with the atmosphere. It is both of and apart from the sky, maintaining flight by adjusting itself – automatically or through the actions of its pilot – to changes in the weather around it. It’s a monstrous hybrid of technology and environment, inside and outside; a hybridity which was rendered by some contemporary critics into a language of fragility and vulnerability. If an airship in flight was such a part of the atmosphere, it was thus acutely vulnerable to the atmosphere’s violent forces, in a way which an aeroplane wasn’t. The record of airships crashing in bad weather would appear to bear out some of these fears.
Finally, interwar airships were odd hybrids of the mechanical and the organic. There was perhaps a bit of bio-mimicry going on, with the automatic gas valve system talked about in the press as an “ingenious adaptation” of fish gills. R.101 was “bristling” with new technologies, itself a monstrous assemblage of innovations and experiments, perhaps without sufficient testing of how all these new things would work together. R.100, in contrast, has been viewed retrospectively as a more ‘elegant’ design, simple and efficient, and not relying too heavily on the new and the untried.
In both ships though the gas bags were made of goldbeater’s skin, a material manufactured from the intestines of oxen and cows, paired with cotton for strength. Hundreds of thousands of separate skins, sourced from the meat industries of North and South America, would be pieced together – apparently the fact that the membranes were in one sense still ‘alive’ helped with the creation of sealed seams; the pieces would adhere together into a larger whole. Prized for its impermeability, goldbeater’s skin had earlier made appearances in oboe reeds and condoms. It has also been used in hygrometers, where its sensitivity to changes in humidity is prized. However, this sensitivity also posed problems when ships would be flying through variably moist and dry air, and the different responses of the skin and the cotton to drying could lead to the whole structure becoming dangerously misshapen and distorted. This was a particular worry for journeys into tropical atmospheres – different versions of the gas bag fabric were left out in the Egyptian sun to figure out the best way to assemble a gas bag which would stand up to a tropical climate.
Some involved in the design of the ships worried about the “natural imperfections” of an animal substance like ox intestine, and about the impossibility – given the quantities involved (several hundred-thousand cow’s worth) – of checking for consistency. Patents were filed for artificial replacements, but these weren’t developed in time for the first flights of Britain’s imperial airships, which took to the air with their ox-guts, ‘hopeful monstrosities’ in a variety of senses, with one of them, of course, never to return.
Reading the critics of the airship scheme, particularly Spanner, there is one final, more moralistic version of monstrosity at play – the apparent inattention of designers, or perhaps their paymasters, to adequate safety testing of these new technological assemblages, and the underestimation of the risks being taken by passengers of the first flights. Here was a monstrous disregard for the lives of those onboard, which was perhaps a direct consequence of the widespread hopes and expectations for a future remade by airships. Hopeful monstrosities, indeed.
 E.F. Spanner, This Airship Business! and Gentlemen Prefer Aeroplanes!