The Dream of the Atlantic

The Dream of the Atlantic

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  • May, 18 , 23

101 Hours in a Zeppelin is a story about the development of long-distance airship travel in the early twentieth century. The narrative is primarily focused on a record-breaking flight that took place during the First World War, a flight on which Captain Ernst August Lehmann piloted a zeppelin around the skies above the North Sea for 101 hours. Despite the military craft and crew, this was purely a scientific mission, intended to test the viability of transatlantic flight; Lehmann calculated that the flight from Frankfurt to New York should be around 100 hours.

Lehmann’s flight was much more successful than several earlier attempts to cross the Atlantic in an airship, including one by American journalist Walter Wellman in 1910:


Instead, Wellman turned to another challenge: flying across the Atlantic. After rebuilding America, including adding a second engine, he moved to Atlantic City in the summer of 1910 to await favorable weather. In contrast to previous announcements of transatlantic flights, which had been received with utmost credulity by the news media of the day, Wellman’s plan earned a surprising amount of scorn from newspapers across the country. Some felt that it was all a publicity stunt; others cracked that the obvious next thing for Wellman to attempt was a flight into the crater at Vesuvius, while even others suggested that Wellman take a boat or to learn how to swim. This attitude may well have come from the fact that the expedition was being supported by three newspapers: The Chicago Record-Herald, the (London) Daily Telegraph, and the New York Times. Unsurprisingly, these three newspapers were much more supportive in their pages than others, spending large amounts of space on the minutiae of the preparations.

Finally, at 8:05 a.m. on October 5, Wellman and his five crewmembers—and a cat named Kiddo who had stowed away—took off from Atlantic City. As in previous trips, Wellman had a ship tow his airship out into the ocean, a particularly wise decision in this case owing to the heavy fog blanketing the sea. Just as they were getting ready to detach themselves from the ship, Wellman had second thoughts about having a cat on board, especially as Kiddo seemed to be restless and out of sorts in the swaying cabin. Wellman ordered the cat to be put in a bag and sent down by a rope to ship below. He then sent what is generally considered to be the first-ever radio transmission from an airship to the ground: “Roy, come and get this g*****n cat.” By the time Leroy Chamberlain, Wellman’s secretary, had made it out to the airship, the sea was too rough for any feline transfer and the airship was on its own, still with the cat on board.

For the first hours, all went well. After about two hours, they stopped the engines to send a message back to Atlantic City. The message was banal, “All well on board. Machinery working well,” and not exactly accurate. Vaniman, the engineer, and his assistants Loud and Aubert had been working nonstop to keep them running at all.

But, for now, they were working. With the engines back on, the airship began moving steadily to the northeast. Unfortunately, by the afternoon, trouble reared its head: the main engine broke down. Vaniman posited that sand had gotten into it during the time waiting for favorable weather in Atlantic City. Knowing the nature of the problem did nothing to repair it. According to Vaniman, “It was no good and could be thrown overboard for ballast.”

The members of the expedition remained hopeful, however. After all, there was still a second, smaller engine, which had performed admirably thus far. In fact, it continued to run throughout the night, though Wellman was shocked to see the numbers of sparks flying out of it—much too close to the enormous envelope of gas keeping the ship in the air. Vaniman was more sanguine, pointing out that the engine had been producing sparks like this from the beginning; it was just that during the day you could not see them.

During the night, the airship also almost ran into a schooner, but quick thinking on the part of the helmsman kept disaster at bay. Early the next morning, the motor was shut off briefly, then restarted, then stopped again when it was determined that the wind was blowing the America in approximately the right direction. For the next two days, the airship was essentially at the mercy of the winds. In spite of this, they continued to make steady progress to the northeast, getting slowly closer to the European continent, with the engine used sparingly.

By the next afternoon, in spite of the care taken over the engine, it too, was broken, and it was clear that there was no hope of reaching Europe. With the wind shifting, it now seemed more likely to reach Bermuda. Instead, at 5:00 a.m. on the eighteenth, members of the crew sighted the steamer RMS Trent and managed to signal it using first Morse code on a signal lamp, then communicating via radio. The America dropped down to the water, where the crew unsnapped the balloon, which bounded away over the waves, while they drove the boat that had been suspended under the balloon over to the Trent. The airship had made it to a point 600 kilometers due east of Hatteras, and thus almost exactly due south of the easternmost point in the continental United States.

Everyone, even the cat, survived with no injuries. Only the America, and presumably Wellman’s pride, were lost that day. If nothing else, they had managed a flight of more than seventy hours and traveled a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers.


The Lehmann flight, which took place in the summer of 1917, was a much more professional operation. On board that flight was a physics professor and radio expert named Robert Wichard Pohl, who kept a written account of the journey. A century later, that account was translated by the professor’s grandson, Robert S. Pohl. The translation of this original, unpublished account of the flight became the key primary source for 101 Hours in a Zeppelin: Ernst August Lehmann and the Dream of Transatlantic Flight, 1917.
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