Steampunk Inspirations

A Documentary of Airships, Adventure, and Illicit Romance

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Graf Zeppelin 1929 Around Globe Trip, Full Documentary

This is an interesting documentary from the BBC about the around-the-world journey of the Graf Zeppelin in 1929. The Graf Zeppelin was one of the more successful of the German airships and made the journey from Lakehurst, NJ, on August 29, 1929, around the world, and back, in only 28 days.

Wherever it went, the airship provided excitement for those on the ground as well as in the air. When it reached New York City, for instance, its arrival was considered a momentous event:

Five thousand men, women, and children are sitting on newspapers in the park. The streets are packed. All available parking spaces have been taken. Defining cheers rise up when the zeppelin appears on the horizon. But, when the airship flies over, the thousands standing to watch are silent.

The BBC Four documentary presents all of this information from film shot in 1929. What is most remarkable to me is not just the footage from the major cities–and it is quite something to see those black-and-white film images of the 1929 New York skyline from the steady-shot offered by the zeppelin–but also the footage of the construction of the airship and the remote places that the passengers and crew of the zeppelin visited during their sojourn. They have footage not only of the airship frame being constructed, but show how the panels are sewn together, the gas being added, and the cargo being loaded. They even have film of the day-to-day tasks of flight crew and how the airship was maintained in the air and in various ports of call.

Lady Grace Drummond Hay was a passenger on this trip and the documentary’s narration is in large part from her letters, journals, and published articles. William Randolph Hurst, who financed the trip, was looking for one female journalist to write about the trip, and Hay explains “I made sure that he found me.”

Hay describes the technical preparations before the journey begins:

At the airport men are working immensely hard to complete all of the preparations. 70 thousand cubic meters of gas has been injected into the zeppelin. 2040 pounds of food will be onboard.

She not only provides a sense of the momentous technological achievement inherent in this journey, but also what it feels like to be a passenger on an airship:

During the first hours above the ocean it is easy enough to spend the day simply sitting by the open window feeling the wind in my face, observing the magical colors of the sea.
Everything is so well-organized. The best wines at dinner. A nice young steward who goes to enormous trouble to look after us.

Everything is not smooth sailing, however. The passengers, whose characters Hay sketches with her words while their activities are documented on film, are a multi-national group. When the airship flies over areas that had been destroyed in WWI, the political discussions become heated. Adding to this is the fact that the majority of the crew are German. The zeppelin program is a matter of national pride for them. They resent the fact that the journey had to begin and end in the U.S. However, since Germany did not have the money to fund the project, they turned to the financier, Randolph Hurst, and he insisted on a U.S. start and finish. (“He who pays for the trip sets the rules”).

After watching the documentary, I have to agree with Hay, who writes:

I love machinery. The works of this giant airship are exquisite.

The documentary by BBC Four of the Graf Airship provides a tremendous amount of information for anyone who wants a more thorough understanding of airships and what a 1920s journey in one would entail. It also includes a fascinating look at multiple cultures, an illicit romance, and some truly dramatic film footage.

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