Photo: AFP / Getty

The word “zeppelin” today conjures up images of explosions, bad steampunk fiction, and Indiana Jones arguing with his dad. And yet, as Slate reminds us, the airships of the 1930s once stood for stately luxury rather than fiery death. Prompted by the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, historian Michael J. Socolow looks back at the rapturous radio coverage of the aircraft’s successful 1936 voyages, which marked “the brief heyday of zeppelin travel”:

[NBC broadcaster Max Jordan] described that evening’s excellent dinner and the Beethoven sonata enjoyed by the passengers earlier in the afternoon and mentioned that the Hindenburg’s airspeed in perfect weather would ensure its early arrival. The next day, Jordan updated the nation as the Hindenburg headed down the Atlantic coast from Canada. That broadcast included piano music played by Dresden musician Franz Wagner on the ship’s specially constructed lightweight grand piano. Jordan explained how the ship’s remarkable stability allowed him to sleep peacefully through a brief but violent thunderstorm the previous night. Aside from his NBC updates, Jordan also participated in special RRG broadcasts, beamed back to Germany and hosted by Kurt von Boeckmann, the RRG’s director of international broadcasting. These NBC and RRG programs were the first live broadcasts from a passenger airship aloft over the ocean, a remarkable technological achievement celebrated widely in newspapers and magazines.

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The American public’s love affair with the swastika-adorned Hindenburg is a little surprising given the list of previous airship accidents from causes such as “lightning.” But the Zeppelin Company itself had a sterling safety record (until May 6, 1937), and the nation’s fascination with enormous floating gasbags was apparently stronger than concerns about the Nazi regime. Also, the zeppelin had a piano man. Germany had subsidized the nearly “obsolete” airship for propaganda purposes, and it worked: “The media couldn’t get enough Hindenburg news,” Socolow says, and it covered celebrity passengers with an eagerness that today’s more dignified outlets reserve for Star Wars teaser trailers.

In October, as the North Atlantic season came to close, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (German Zeppelin Transport Company) arranged a special promotional “Millionaires Tour” to thank Americans for their support. A group of wealthy and famous people—among them Nelson Rockefeller, World War I ace (and general manager of Eastern Airlines) Eddie Rickenbacker, the presidents of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and the General Baking Company, and Germany’s ambassador to the United States—departed Lakehurst for a 10-hour, 680-mile swing over New York and New England. “It was the most imposing passenger list in the history of flying,” reported the New York Sun.

Airships are such an alt-history obsession that their moment in actual history now sounds surreal: Nazi propaganda machines once flew over New Jersey and the Empire State Building was advertised as a mooring mast for dirigibles. Socolow writes that the breathless zeppelin hype of 1936 shows us how “the future could have been different,” but the airship craze ended for good (for the most part) the next year.

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