On this day in 1937, the airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew members. Frenchman Henri Giffard constructed the first successful airship in 1852. His hydrogen-filled blimp carried a three-horsepower steam engine that turned a large propeller and flew at a speed of six miles per hour.
The rigid airship, often known as the "zeppelin" after the last name of its innovator, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, was developed by the Germans in the late 19th century. Unlike French airships, the German ships had a light framework of metal girders that protected a gas-filled interior. However, like Giffard's airship, they were lifted by highly flammable hydrogen gas and vulnerable to explosion.
Large enough to carry substantial numbers of passengers, one of the most famous rigid airships was the Graf Zeppelin, a dirigible that travelled around the world in 1929. In the 1930s, the Graf Zeppelin pioneered the first transatlantic air service, leading to the construction of the Hindenburg, a larger passenger airship.
On 3 May 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany, for a journey across the Atlantic to Lakehurst's Navy Air Base. Stretching 804 feet from stern to bow, it carried 36 passengers and crew of 61. While attempting to moor at Lakehurst, the airship suddenly burst into flames, probably after a spark ignited its hydrogen core. Rapidly falling 200 feet to the ground, the hull of the airship incinerated within seconds.
Thirteen passengers, 21 crewmen, and 1 civilian member of the ground crew lost their lives, and most of the survivors suffered substantial injuries. Radio announcer Herb Morrison, who came to Lakehurst to record a routine voice-over for an NBC newsreel, immortalised the Hindenberg disaster in a famous on-scene description in which he emotionally declared, "Oh, the humanity!"
The recording of Morrison's commentary was immediately flown to New York, where it was aired as part of America's first coast-to-coast radio news broadcast. Lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favour after the Hindenberg disaster, and no rigid airships survived World War II.