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Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology

16 October 2015

Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology, Ed Regis, 2015, ISBN  978-0-465-06160-0, 325 pp.

Monsters: the Hindenburg disaster and the birth of pathological technology by Ed Regis

Monsters: the Hindenburg disaster and the birth of pathological technology by Ed Regis

Get this book for its airship history, especially for the details of persons instrumental in their development. The major information is, of course, covered but the small items are what make this writing a treasure. The annotated bibliography itself is worth the cost of the book—especially regarding the Hindenburg.

Get this book for an essay on “pathological technology”–a concept elaborated on by the author regarding technological projects which continued far beyond the point where they should have been aborted (at least in hind sight). Regis primarily uses airship development and, especially, the Hindenburg tragedy as the archetypical example. And why not? Over a hundred airship crashes, many of them immolations, pose the question a century later: Why was airship development pursued and for so long?

Regis explains better than most the handling and flying of airships by making use of his vast science writing expertise but also with just the right examples. The research he did for this title is deep and thorough in so many ways but his writing throughout the text—although exquisitely sarcastic—never misses an opportunity to disparage the Hindenburg as well as airship technology in general. In other words, the insults and judgements are intermixed with the facts—making this an essay as opposed to technical writing since, after all, this is one man’s opinion being presented. An opinion expressed quite well, however, and detailed information is presented to in support.

There are some nits, as Regis either was unaware or chose not to include these items:

  • Regis ignores entirely the lack of other transport means to cross great distances more speedily than ocean liners. Airships were five times faster though magnitudes more expensive. Their attractiveness and desirability in terms of economics and convenience should be obvious—not unaddressed.
  • Regis disparages the WW I efficacy of German airship bombing missions over England. His numbers are correct and appear, in sum, to support his assessment. However, he does not address the psychological aspect of terror which can destabilize governments (they do not like that). He is dumbfounded why Great Britain began an airship program after its experience on the receiving end of them during WW I. Then again, they also recalled the disproportionately great amount of resources mobilized to combat them…including the invention of the aircraft carrier solely to raid German airship bases on the continent.
  • He does not address winged aviation as a counterpoint for balance in his discussion. Early aviation for decades was marked more by crashes and lost aviators than successes. Fixed wing and airship technologies were dangerous in the early 1900s by today’s standards and, of course, fixed wing aviation is now successful. Regis might have compared the two regarding pathological technological thinking since, during the time, airships could do what aircraft could not and that is to stay aloft for long periods but aircraft could be handled much more easily by ground crews. Both types of aircraft, back in the day, often crashed yet both were pursued despite these tragedies for decades until lighter-than-air ultimately occupied a small niche and airplanes became ubiquitous. Regis’s thinking regarding the mechanism as to why one technology became pathological and the other not (i.e., not simply one being greatly successful and the other not) would be enlightening and welcome.
  • The question is: Why does Regis imply, “Airplanes good—Airships bad”? Is it that if it is big and fails it is pathological technology? Regis does not address this question of the quest for pioneering and spin-off benefits versus inordinately expensive as well as risky projects. His discussion here would be enlightening and inspire frank discussion.

Regis is on to something with his “pathological technology” and more so in scope than what the book directly addresses. It may be a significant part of the decision-making humans pursued in other tragedies or near tragedies such as the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (where upper management overrode engineering opinions) as well as getting involved in small wars thinking they will be easy and brief.

Get this book for its description of airships and their history—especially the Hindenburg crash.

Get this book for a new concept in the mechanics of group human decision-making gone wrong.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Regis permalink
    16 October 2015 11:57

    Fixed wings and reciprocating engines are a generally stable and safe combination. Putting seven million cubic feet of explosive hydrogen gas next to a bunch of trusting passengers is an inherently unstable, unsafe arrangement. That is why the latter is pathological, the former not.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      16 October 2015 12:17

      Mr. Regis! I’m so glad you saw the post as I tried to find a direct way to contact you but failed. I wanted to have you look at it and comment instead of surprising you since your discourse on was enlightening and enjoyable. Lest you think that I miss your point, I was thinking of the poor souls lost or horribly disfigured in aviation gasoline infernos–they certainly would be opining of stable and safe combinations of fixed wings and reciprocating engines being a pathological technology. Their burns are usually second and third degree, skipping first degree all together.

      I accept and do not argue the point in the post which you address–I thought exploration by you of it might be enlightening–only a passing thought, perhaps. Airship technology is metastable in my view (albeit useful in specific niches) even if helium-borne as opposed to fixed wing aviation.

      Thanks for your book and comment,


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