Books by Regis, Ed

Regis, Ed. Monsters. New York: Basic Books, 2015. ISBN 978-0-465-06594-3.
In 1863, as the American Civil War raged, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an ambitious young cavalry officer from the German kingdom of Württemberg arrived in America to observe the conflict and learn its lessons for modern warfare. He arranged an audience with President Lincoln, who authorised him to travel among the Union armies. Zeppelin spent a month with General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac. Accustomed to German military organisation, he was unimpressed with what he saw and left to see the sights of the new continent. While visiting Minnesota, he ascended in a tethered balloon and saw the landscape laid out below him like a military topographical map. He immediately grasped the advantage of such an eye in the sky for military purposes. He was impressed.

Upon his return to Germany, Zeppelin pursued a military career, distinguishing himself in the 1870 war with France, although being considered “a hothead”. It was this characteristic which brought his military career to an abrupt end in 1890. Chafing under what he perceived as stifling leadership by the Prussian officer corps, he wrote directly to the Kaiser to complain. This was a bad career move; the Kaiser “promoted” him into retirement. Adrift, looking for a new career, Zeppelin seized upon controlled aerial flight, particularly for its military applications. And he thought big.

By 1890, France was at the forefront of aviation. By 1885 the first dirigible, La France, had demonstrated aerial navigation over complex closed courses and carried passengers. Built for the French army, it was just a technology demonstrator, but to Zeppelin it demonstrated a capability with such potential that Germany must not be left behind. He threw his energy into the effort, formed a company, raised the money, and embarked upon the construction of Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ 1).

Count Zeppelin was not a man to make small plans. Eschewing sub-scale demonstrators or technology-proving prototypes, he went directly to a full scale airship intended to be militarily useful. It was fully 128 metres long, almost two and a half times the size of La France, longer than a football field. Its rigid aluminium frame contained 17 gas bags filled with hydrogen, and it was powered by two gasoline engines. LZ 1 flew just three times. An observer from the German War Ministry reported it to be “suitable for neither military nor for non-military purposes.” Zeppelin's company closed its doors and the airship was sold for scrap.

By 1905, Zeppelin was ready to try again. On its first flight, the LZ 2 lost power and control and had to make a forced landing. Tethered to the ground at the landing site, it was caught by the wind and destroyed. It was sold for scrap. Later the LZ 3 flew successfully, and Zeppelin embarked upon construction of the LZ 4, which would be larger still. While attempting a twenty-four hour endurance flight, it suffered motor failure, landed, and while tied down was caught by wind. Its gas bags rubbed against one another and static electricity ignited the hydrogen, which reduced the airship to smoking wreckage.

Many people would have given up at this point, but not the redoubtable Count. The LZ 5, delivered to the military, was lost when carried away by the wind after an emergency landing and dashed against a hill. LZ 6 burned in its hangar after an engine caught fire. LZ 7, the first civilian passenger airship, crashed into a forest on its first flight and was damaged beyond repair. LZ 8, its replacement, was destroyed by a gust of wind while being walked out of its hangar.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the airship went to war. Germany operated 117 airships, using them for reconnaissance and even bombing targets in England. Of the 117, fully 81 were destroyed, about half due to enemy action and half by the woes which had wrecked so many airships prior to the conflict.

Based upon this stunning record of success, after the end of the Great War, Britain decided to embark in earnest on its own airship program, building even larger airships than Germany. Results were no better, culminating in the R100 and R101, built to provide air and cargo service on routes throughout the Empire. On its maiden flight to India in 1930, R101 crashed and burned in a storm while crossing France, killing 48 of the 54 on board. After the catastrophe, the R100 was retired and sold for scrap.

This did not deter the Americans, who, in addition to their technical prowess and “can do” spirit, had access to helium, produced as a by-product of their natural gas fields. Unlike hydrogen, helium is nonflammable, so the risk of fire, which had destroyed so many airships using hydrogen, was entirely eliminated. Helium does not provide as much lift as hydrogen, but this can be compensated for by increasing the size of the ship. Helium is also around fifty times more expensive than hydrogen, which makes managing an airship in flight more difficult. While the commander of a hydrogen airship can freely “valve” gas to reduce lift when required, doing this in a helium ship is forbiddingly expensive and restricted only to the most dire of emergencies.

The U.S. Navy believed the airship to be an ideal platform for long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols, and other missions where its endurance, speed, and the ability to operate far offshore provided advantages over ships and heavier than air craft. Between 1921 and 1935 the Navy operated five rigid airships, three built domestically and two abroad. Four of the five crashed in storms or due to structural failure, killing dozens of crew.

This sorry chronicle leads up to a detailed recounting of the history of the Hindenburg. Originally designed to use helium, it was redesigned for hydrogen after it became clear the U.S., which had forbidden export of helium in 1927, would not grant a waiver, especially to a Germany by then under Nazi rule. The Hindenburg was enormous: at 245 metres in length, it was longer than the U.S. Capitol building and more than three times the length of a Boeing 747. It carried between 50 and 72 passengers who were served by a crew of 40 to 61, with accommodations (apart from the spartan sleeping quarters) comparable to first class on ocean liners. In 1936, the great ship made 17 transatlantic crossings without incident. On its first flight to the U.S. in 1937, it was destroyed by fire while approaching the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The disaster and its aftermath are described in detail. Remarkably, given the iconic images of the flaming airship falling to the ground and the structure glowing from the intense heat of combustion, of the 97 passengers and crew on board, 62 survived the disaster. (One of the members of the ground crew also died.)

Prior to the destruction of the Hindenburg, a total of twenty-six hydrogen filled airships had been destroyed by fire, excluding those shot down in wartime, with a total of 250 people killed. The vast majority of all rigid airships built ended in disaster—if not due to fire then structural failure, weather, or pilot error. Why did people continue to pursue this technology in the face of abundant evidence that it was fundamentally flawed?

The author argues that rigid airships are an example of a “pathological technology”, which he characterises as:

  1. Embracing something huge, either in size or effects.
  2. Inducing a state bordering on enthralment among its proponents…
  3. …who underplay its downsides, risks, unintended consequences, and obvious dangers.
  4. Having costs out of proportion to the benefits it is alleged to provide.

Few people would argue that the pursuit of large airships for more than three decades in the face of repeated disasters was a pathological technology under these criteria. Even setting aside the risks from using hydrogen as a lifting gas (which I believe the author over-emphasises: prior to the Hindenburg accident nobody had ever been injured on a commercial passenger flight of a hydrogen airship, and nobody gives a second thought today about boarding an airplane with 140 tonnes of flammable jet fuel in the tanks and flying across the Pacific with only two engines). Seemingly hazardous technologies can be rendered safe with sufficient experience and precautions. Large lighter than air ships were, however, inherently unsafe because they were large and lighter than air: nothing could be done about that. They were are the mercy of the weather, and if they were designed to be strong enough to withstand whatever weather conditions they might encounter, they would have been too heavy to fly. As the experience of the U.S. Navy with helium airships demonstrated, it didn't matter if you were immune to the risks of hydrogen; the ship would eventually be destroyed in a storm.

The author then moves on from airships to discuss other technologies he deems pathological, and here, in my opinion, goes off the rails. The first of these technologies is Project Plowshare, a U.S. program to explore the use of nuclear explosions for civil engineering projects such as excavation, digging of canals, creating harbours, and fracturing rock to stimulate oil and gas production. With his characteristic snark, Regis mocks the very idea of Plowshare, and yet examination of the history of the program belies this ridicule. For the suggested applications, nuclear explosions were far more economical than chemical detonations and conventional earthmoving equipment. One principal goal of Plowshare was to determine the efficacy of such explosions and whether they would pose risks (for example, release of radiation) which were unacceptable. Over 11 years 26 nuclear tests were conducted under the program, most at the Nevada Test Site, and after a review of the results it was concluded the radiation risk was unacceptable and the results unpromising. Project Plowshare was shut down in 1977. I don't see what's remotely pathological about this. You have an idea for a new technology; you explore it in theory; conduct experiments; then decide it's not worth pursuing. Now maybe if you're Ed Regis, you may have been able to determine at the outset, without any of the experimental results, that the whole thing was absurd, but a great many people with in-depth knowledge of the issues involved preferred to run the experiments, take the data, and decide based upon the results. That, to me, seems the antithesis of pathological.

The next example of a pathological technology is the Superconducting Super Collider, a planned particle accelerator to be built in Texas which would have an accelerator ring 87.1 km in circumference and collide protons at a centre of mass energy of 40 TeV. The project was approved and construction begun in the 1980s. In 1993, Congress voted to cancel the project and work underway was abandoned. Here, the fit with “pathological technology” is even worse. Sure, the project was large, but it was mostly underground: hardly something to “enthral” anybody except physics nerds. There were no risks at all, apart from those in any civil engineering project of comparable scale. The project was cancelled because it overran its budget estimates but, even if completed, would probably have cost less than a tenth the expenditures to date on the International Space Station, which has produced little or nothing of scientific value. How is it pathological when a project, undertaken for well-defined goals, is cancelled when those funding it, seeing its schedule slip and budget balloon beyond that projected, pull the plug on it? Isn't that how things are supposed to work? Who were the seers who forecast all of this at the project's inception?

The final example of so-called pathological technology is pure spite. Ed Regis has a fine time ridiculing participants in the first 100 Year Starship symposium, a gathering to explore how and why humans might be able, within a century, to launch missions (robotic or crewed) to other star systems. This is not a technology at all, but rather an exploration of what future technologies might be able to do, and the limits imposed by the known laws of physics upon potential technologies. This is precisely the kind of “exploratory engineering” that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky engaged in when he worked out the fundamentals of space flight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He didn't know the details of how it would be done, but he was able to calculate, from first principles, the limits of what could be done, and to demonstrate that the laws of physics and properties of materials permitted the missions he envisioned. His work was largely ignored, which I suppose may be better than being mocked, as here.

You want a pathological technology? How about replacing reliable base load energy sources with inefficient sources at the whim of clouds and wind? Banning washing machines and dishwashers that work in favour of ones that don't? Replacing toilets with ones that take two flushes in order to “save water”? And all of this in order to “save the planet” from the consequences predicted by a theoretical model which has failed to predict measured results since its inception, through policies which impoverish developing countries and, even if you accept the discredited models, will have negligible results on the global climate. On this scandal of our age, the author is silent. He concludes:

Still, for all of their considerable faults and stupidities—their huge costs, terrible risks, unintended negative consequences, and in some cases injuries and deaths—pathological technologies possess one crucial saving grace: they can be stopped.

Or better yet, never begun.

Except, it seems, you can only recognise them in retrospect.

January 2016 Permalink