User Input

User Input: Temporal Fantasies

The USS Macon, under construction, on May 20, 1932.

Our good friend tenbeers sent in a link to this amazing photography, showing the construction of the USS Macon, an American airship designed to compete against the German Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Unlike the larger German craft, the American airships used helium to keep them aloft, meaning they were an almost completely safe form of air travel. Really, there just wasn’t much that could possibly go wrong with them, but the Hindenburg disaster convinced the public that it was far too dangerous to travel in an airship.

But nevermind all that. Look at that construction photo! Look at the insane ladders involved! The workers must have spent the first hour of every work day just climbing up there to work! It’s madness, and it makes for a gorgeous photo.

If you could go back in time, and watch any piece of technology being developed, what would tickle your fancy?

[Image source: RADDBlog]

[“User Input” is the AtomicToasters Question of the Day™ asking you,
the teeming millions, to answer our pressing questions.]

  • dmilligan

    Er, do I need to point out that all three of the Navy's zeppelins crashed? Or was there only two? There was the Macon, the Saratoga, and wasn't there another one? Gah, damned brain cells.

    • skitter

      Enormous surface area relative to mass is a bad combination in storm conditions.

      • dmilligan

        Yes, very bad. A hard lesson learned by the Navy, and others trying to commercialize airships.

    • The Macon's sister ship was the Akron, which went down near NAS Lakehurst.

      • dmilligan

        Thank you! I couldn't remember that to save my soul. I'm trying to get away from using Google as a replacement for my memory, but it's tough.

        • I have to admit to having the Googlemachine's help. However, in my defense, I had looked up where it was built after my coworker said that it looked like it was Hangar 1. In my searching for information on where it was built (the Goodyear Airdock, by the way), I found out that our good ship Macon here had a sister named Akron and that both had been lost.

    • Deartháir

      I'll have to see if I can find it, but I remember reading a year or so ago about how the flaw in the airship was less its capability in a storm, and more the lack of understanding — and technology — to manage the ship in a storm. With a pressurized cabin — something airships didn't have back then — they would have been able to fly high enough to manage the adverse conditions much better.

      • dmilligan

        It's not just storms, but getting caught at low altitudes in high winds is their big weak spot. There is an example I wanted to show you, but I can't find it in google. It was a dirigible with four engines mounted equidistant around the circumference, and it was used mainly for lifting harvested timber out of hard to reach places. I can't remember the name of the thing. Stupid brain of mine. My allergies are awful today, that must be it. Yeah, that's the ticket.
        Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that airships can be useful, but they're inherently dangerous to humans riding on them.

    • Jo_Schmo

      It was the Macon, the Saratoga and the Santa Maria.

      • dmilligan

        Thank you for that historical update, Mr. Schmo. I am nonplussed by your sagacity.

    • Froggmann_

      There were four USS Shenandoah, USS Los Angeles, USS Akron and USS Macon.

      USS Shenandoah: Zeppelin-built reparations airship (The Germans destroyed several airships before handing them over to the allies so they had to build replacements) based on the L-49 a "Fast Climber" designed with a lighweight hull so it could rise out of enemy fire. It got caught in a storm and essentially had the tail ripped off when it crashed.

      USS Los Angeles: Another Zeppelin-built airship designed for civilian transport. Used as a R&D vessel as well as a training vessel for the Navy's other airships and for goodwill tours. First airship to be tested as a floating aircraft carrier. Decommissioned when the Akron and Macon were launched. Recommissioned when the Akron crashed. Decommissioned due to budget cuts and broken up in 1939.

      USS Akron: Designed and built in Akron OH as a co-venture by Goodyear Airship Co. and Zeppelin. Used a heavier and more rigid design then previous Zeppelin airships. Designed as a true airborne aircraft carrier. Crashed off the coast of New Jersey when a series of up and downdrafts caused the tail to strike the surface of the ocean rendering all of the control surfaces useless. All hands but 3 perished not from the crash but from exposure to the cold Atlantic waters and the absence of lifejackets.

      USS Macon: Sister ship to the Akron built at the same facility in Akron, OH it was built for the same role as the Akron. Crashed off the coast of Big Sur, California when the upper tailfin structure completely failed due to an earlier structural failure that had not been completely repaired. This failure caused the tailfin to fall off. The loss of 2700 Lbs caused the airship to drastically rise to the point the helium overpressurized and was released through the automatic release valves. The ship lost buoyancy despite an emergency dump of fuel and ballast and it crashed into the ocean. Only 2 crewmembers died this time due to the lesson of the Akron of having life vests on board. The two cremembers that died did not die from the crash. One jumped ship from too far an altitude and the other drowned when he tried to retrieve some personal effects from the wreckage.

      • dmilligan

        Great reply! That is an excellent compact history you put together. I had forgotten completely about the Los Angeles (rather than partially like the Akron, argh!). Thank you for the information.

        • Froggmann_

          I think the greatest tragedy here is the one airship that didn't crash and lived long enough to get scrapped is the most forgotten one. Maybe it was just sour grapes about it being a true, unmodified Zeppelin design.

  • Alff

    I would like to witness the life of David Bushnell, who receives partial credit for the creation of the submarine and later, for reasons known only to him, lived out his days under an assumed name.

  • skitter

    Maybe if I saw early computers being designed I'd have some idea of how such devilry works.

  • P161911


    The massive steel castings and HUGE guns are fascinating.

    • Deartháir

      Abso-friggin'-lutely! I spent enough time doing tours of the Queen Mary — and researching the ship for a paper in University — that I would love to watch the behind-the-scenes of the development of a ship like the Bismarck, or even the original Dreadnought.

      • pj134

        Even something later on like the USS New Jersey would be damn cool. It is kind of funny that its main guns can hit three miles short of my house and it is about an hour drive for me to get to where it is docked.

        And that shell weighs a little less then a Lotus.

  • dmilligan

    This topic is a toughie, as there are all sort of things that I'd enjoy watching being designed and built. If I had to pick one, I'd have to pick the first big synchrotron and especially its detectors. Wonderfully complicated machines.

    Also, did you note the length of the ladders being used in the airship photo? Could you imagine climbing those things, carrying tools and material? My god, just looking at them I get dizzy.

    • They compare with the height of the ladders that I've seen exploring the mines here in Tombstone. Crazy, scary shit, that the early miners climbed up and down every day without even thinking about it. I've gone down and up some, while roped off, and just couldn't imagine these badasses doing the same thing every day, without being roped off. Of course, they may have ridden up and down in the skip bucket (in an inclined shaft, which is nuts because there's no safety dog mechanism), but that's nuts, too. Our ancestors were a bunch of badasses.

      • dmilligan

        Doesn't it sometimes make you wonder how our ancestors survived long enough to reproduce? It's probably a miracle that some of our families exist today.

        • Froggmann_

          I chock it up to common sense. Those who didn't have it, didn't live long. Those who did got a better job.

          • dmilligan

            Point taken.

  • Do I have to pick just one? I mean, high up on my list are the airplane, jet, rockets, all the crazy X planes of the '50s and '60s, the Saturn V and putting a man on the moon, and the list goes on.


    I was born 50 years too late.

    • Deartháir

      Ooh, nice call on the X-planes. Wouldn't that be an amazing time to be a fly on the wall? Not only pushing the boundaries of technology, but dancing on the head of a pin with regards to what we knew about the physics involved. Many had said, only a few years earlier, that the shockwave involved would preclude any possibility of flying faster than the speed of sound, and evidence from the Mosquito and Lightning going supersonic in dives had seemed to prove that theory correct, as the shockwave very nearly threw the planes out of control. And then, only a short while later, they're trying to do it intentionally. And they weren't sure if that would cause the pilot to, you know, DIE. But hey, only one way to find out!

      • Oh man, I read Yeager's autobiography or watch The Right Stuff and nearly pee myself with excitement. They were pushing boundaries nearly every day, sometimes not having any clue what was on the other side of that boundary. Aircraft technology was advancing at a very rapid pace. To think, in less than 20 years we went from no jet engines to supersonic fighters. Add to it the concurrent work on the space program and sending a man to the moon and launching our first monkeys and satellites. Man, I so do wish I had been an engineer back then.

        • Deartháir

          I get the feeling that it's just reached the point now where we're not willing to take risks. Back then, they would have said to a pilot like Yeager, "If we try this, it could kill you.", and he'd reply, "Well I guess this helmet isn't going to do a lot of good then…". There was a "Sir, yes sir!" mentality with regard to risk, because you were doing this for the good of your country, and to push the boundaries of science. It seems like now, we won't even try experiments if there's a chance someone could get hurt.

          I'm all for safety, but I also think we need a healthy dose of bat-shit insanity. We just need to go a bit nuts, and try some stuff. Yes, some people will get killed. And they will be heroes of the modern era, just like all those test pilots who tried something far beyond our knowledge. That's how we advance, by taking risks, and sometimes losing.

          • Yup. We have the mantra now of "failure is not an option", which means that anything we may fail at we don't do. Back then, pushed on by the Cold War but also because we understood man's need to explore this physical universe, the attitude was much different. You might fail, and people died in failures, but each failure taught us something. When they started pushing the sound barrier several planes and test pilots were lost because they would lose control of the planes. However, it was from those flights that we learned that due to the shock wave, the entire horizontal stabilizer needed to move in order to be effective. That would never be tolerated today, sadly, due to the threat of litigation and just a cultural aversion to risk and to putting yourself at risk for the sake of learning.

          • dmilligan

            Hmph. Failure is always an option. To think otherwise is to invite a quick, messy death if you're a test pilot. Today's test pilots probably have a better education than those of the 'golden age' of test planes, and they also haven't just lived through WWII and all that entailed. Lastly, with today's media technology, it's getting harder for the military to cover up lethal test accidents like they used to.
            At least, that's my opinion, but WTF do I know?

          • highmileage_v1

            You have a huge point. Look at the difference in the handling qualities of the early F4 Phantom compared to the later variants. Two more aspects of the issue I can add to are; cost of systems development these days; and, the current level of performance of machinery.

            In the bad old days governments (US, UK, USSR, etc) were tossing large amounts of money at projects in an attempt to make generational leaps in technology. When the technology either didn't work, or was overtaken by current events (XB-70, CF-105, TSR-2, Martin Mariner and on and on), the project would be scrapped and another one started. The funding was just written off. The demand for funds across government and industry today has really increased over the last couple of decades so I don't think there is an equivalent amount of cash (or motivation) for generational leaps in knowledge. Sad.

            On system performance. When you are developing a dynamically unstable aircraft that relies on a bazillion (technical term!) lines of code and is utilizing all sorts of subtle aerodynamic effects to achieve another 2-5% of performance, as you know you have to able to understand and analyze what is going wrong, otherwise you'll never get it right. Testing to destruction with a pink body inside the machine is mostly unnecessary today. But I know a few test pilots who are more than willing to do high risk testing in order to push the boundaries. The problem isn't their spirit, it is the development process, which will collapse if there are too many fatalities or too much financial loss. Risk adverse? I don't think so. I just think the cost of failure is much higher now.

          • dmilligan

            Well said. You go first.

          • Deartháir

            I absolutely would. I'm not a huge adrenaline junky, but in the interests of trying something out, I'd have no problem putting my life on the line. I've test-piloted a few cobbled-together project cars that should have killed me, just to see if we had it working. Sometimes, it's the only way to know.

          • dmilligan

            Sigh. You're young and stupid. I hope you survive.

          • Deartháir

            There's a big difference between being "stupid" and being willing to take calculated risks. Have we done everything we can to make this right? Well, we think so, but our own experience isn't enough to tell us for absolute certain. The only way to be absolutely sure is to try it. After triple- and quadruple-checking your work to the best of your ability. That, for instance, is how I learned that the head gasket for a Rambler 195.6 engine, although appearing identical and symmetrical on all sides, is actually not, and the side with the part number written on it must face upwards, even though it looks to the naked eye like it fits slightly better downwards. Nobody I could find had any knowledge of this. So we tried it out, got it wrong, re-did all our work, and got it right the second time.

            I don't condone leaping blindly into the great unknown. But sometimes you simply have to forge ahead into the darkness with the best preparations you can muster.

          • dmilligan

            Ok, I'll concede to your non-lethal point. I am amused at the segue from death dealing X-planes to Rambler head gaskets. You are a motorhead, from side to side.

          • Deartháir

            Best example I could think of where we used the "Fuck, I don't know. Try it, see if it works!" mentality. I suppose I could have used the time when we tried installing the engine from a 280Z into a 240Z without really knowing what we were doing…

          • dmilligan

            I believe that is the 'school of hard knocks' educational method. It works well for a certain type of personality.

          • FЯeeMan

            That's how a buddy and I ended up blowing up an Apple ][, printer and external floppy drive in our elementary school library. (Yes, back when they were new.)

            The cable was unlabeled, the documentation unclear, and markings on the PCBs non-distinct. After an hour or so of discussion, head scratching, argument and finger crossing, we plugged it in, turned it on, and let all the Magic Smoke<™> (Grrrr) out. Unfortunately, I wasn't yet learned in the ways of Lucas, so I didn't have a spare can laying around. The school librarian quietly shooed us out, and we didn't return to the school for several weeks. (We were in Jr. High at the time)

          • highmileage_v1

            Adrenaline is good. Sometimes you have to just go for it and let Darwin sort it out.

  • highmileage_v1

    I would love to able to lurk in Leonardo da Vinci's studio and watch him produce all those prescient ideas. Failing that, talking to Jules Verne about how he came up with the idea for travelling to the moon or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, would be a close second.

  • theTokenGreek

    The purpose of the Macon (and its sister ship, the Akron) was actually quite different from the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg… they were explicitly designed as platforms for large scale aerial scouting for the Pacific fleet. They each had an internal hangar designed to hold approx. 5 F9C Sparrowhawks, and would spawn them like a protoss carrier in order to scout large swaths of ocean. The airships themselves could move at upwards of 90 kts for extended periods of time – a huge advantage over all the other options at the time (mid thirties). While they were vulnerable to weather, what really killed them was the advent of radar. Still, one of the coolest concepts the Navy has ever toyed with. Aerial carriers with a crew of 130? Awesome.

    • dmilligan

      Oh my God, now the Greeks have found us! We're doooomed, yet again!

      Seriously, you're right, the Navy's airships of the 30's were pretty innovative thinking from an organization that was still trying to choke down the concept of ocean going aircraft carriers. An entertaining thought exercise might be to imagine that the airships were not lost in the 30's, but survived until WWII and the advent of radar, and what steps the Navy might have taken to make them survivable. In my mind's eye, I see steampunk airships bristling with AAA mounts and cannons, and big anti-radar dishes….

      • theTokenGreek

        just don't accept any gifts from me or expect me to pay back any loans and you'll be alright…

        It does amuse me that there's this whole steampunk dreamworld built around a fantasy of a largely airship-based civilization when the Navy came damn near making it a reality 80 years ago. The flying aircraft carrier is seen as this unreachable pinnacle of fantasy-tech, and the Navy had two of them before WWII.

        I'd encourage you to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola in Florida. They've got an excellent exhibit on this exact topic, and they go in depth into how the trapeze system worked (for launching and recovering the fighters). Also, awesome video at the following link.

        • Deartháir

          Thanks for the reminder, I've been meaning to do an article on that trapeze system for months now, and keep forgetting about it. To research!

          • dmilligan

            Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've got yer 'research' right here (grabs at crotch, winces). What about my comments, you goomba?

        • dmilligan

          Catching that trapeze really took some practice by the pilots. You get nervous just watching them. I can't help but be reminded of the XF-85 Goblin that was to be deployed from a B-36 bomber, and also recovered by trapeze. I remember seeing films of recovery attempts, and the Goblin pilots also had a helluva time with the trapeze. As I recall, the XF-85 had sufficient mass as to where if the pilot didn't match velocity with the bomber properly, it would destroy the trapeze system and he would be forced to either belly-in or punch out. There were and are some brave knuckleheads in our armed services.

        • Charles_Barrett

          The flying aircraft carrier: A feat not repeated until the commissioning of Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase…
          <img src="; width=500>

  • B72

    It really does look like they could lower the airship frame and use shorter ladders. It wouldn't have been nearly as spectacular though.

    • Froggmann_

      Keep in mind that airframe is about 146 feet tall. To put this in frame, the Akron and Macon were 14 feet longer than an Essex class aircraft carrier.

  • crinklesmith

    I would like to see how Honda built the RC174.

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