Racing with the Moon


In his time, the name of Dr. Hugo Eckener was as well known in the history of aviation as that of Charles Lindbergh. If this is no longer true, it is because the instrument of his fame, the Zeppelin, has disappeared from the skies and from the commercial and military airfleets of the world, and its accomplishments have faded from memory. Douglas Botting’s fascinating and meticulously researched book explains why this happened, while at the same time giving his readers a detailed account of Eckener’s greatest feat, the first circumnavigation of the globe by an airship carrying passengers.*

The Zeppelin was the invention of Ferdinand Count von Zeppelin, an officer in the Prussian army who had become fascinated with the possibility of creating a balloon that was truly “dirigible”—i.e., capable of controlled flight. His ruminations led him to the invention of Germany’s first rigid airship—so called because it had a balloonlike, cigar-shaped hull of metal, composed of vertical rings held together by longitudinal girders, which held its shape regardless of the changing pressure of the gas held in small cells between the rings, and was fitted in addition with a propulsion system, a steering mechanism, and accommodation for cargo, crew, and passengers.

The construction of Zeppelin’s first airship began in 1898. When finished, it was 420 feet long and 38 feet in diameter, colossal in comparison with any flying machine that had preceded it. (“It should have a very large lifting capacity,” Zeppelin had written to his friend the King of Württemberg, “in order to carry personnel, cargo or explosive shells. All three requirements demand a very large gas volume, hence a very large airship.”) Its performance on its first flight, over the Bodensee on July 2, 1900, was not as impressive as its size, for in a flight that lasted only eighteen minutes it covered no more than three and a half miles.

Undiscouraged, Zeppelin ordered a second flight on October 7, 1900. This lasted eighty minutes but is perhaps more memorable because it marked the beginning of the long association between Zeppelin and Hugo Eckener. A thirty-two-year-old economist and sometime correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Eckener had been commissioned by that paper to write a report on the second flight, and he did so, finding more to criticize than to praise. Zeppelin replied by inviting him to dinner and spent the evening describing his hopes of building a national air service in Germany and complaining about the lack of public interest and the active opposition he was encountering in official circles. Eckener was moved by his passion and dedication and before the evening was over had promised to help publicize his cause. Although he could not have imagined it at the time, the rest of his life would be determined by that undertaking, first as a publicist, later as a pilot, trained by his new associate and soon recognized as a master in handling airships. Later still, after the founding by Zeppelin and an associate named…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.