Thinking with airships

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the airship as a speculative technology, particularly its history as an imagined agent of imperial connectivity in interwar Britain. More broadly I’m interested in how meteorology was used in this period to make the atmosphere legible and traversable, and a lot of the motivation for the development of wider meteorological infrastructures was the promised expansion of aviation following the technological advances of World War I.

The airship, however, makes different meteorological demands than the heavier-than-air aeroplane. Airships work through the dynamic relationships between the gases enveloped within the ship and the atmosphere outside the envelope, and its characteristics of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and so on. While aeroplanes use speed and aerodynamic design to produce lift, airships create lift through a set of more subtle relationships, which must be constantly monitored and tinkered with to ensure smooth flight. Changes in one relationship – relative temperature for example – imply and require compensatory changes in others – such as relative pressure. Although airshipping is predicated on sealing gases within, it also requires the constant venting and valving of gas, to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between enveloped and enveloping atmr101-flying-over-london_frompmt-1osphere.

Airships are examples of what Derek McCormack calls ‘aerostatic things’ – things which generate lift through these relational dynamics, the most obvious example being the humble balloon. McCormack’s done a lot of important work on the affective aspects of balloon flight, and on the relationships between affective and meteorological ‘atmospheres’. The reliance of balloons of these relational dynamics, and their capacity to be affected by changing conditions of their atmospheric surroundings, mean they have become a central tool in making atmospheric dynamics visible, as McCormack has pointed out (see his recent piece in Society & Space). But if balloons have made the atmosphere visible for meteorologists, what I’m interested in is how meteorologists likewise made the atmosphere visible for balloons or, more specifically, for airships, and their captains and navigators.
In the early 1920s the British Government resolved to develop an experimental imperial airship scheme, whereby two ships would be built to ply new routes between Britain, India and the Dominions. While the ships were being built, work was also carried out to develop a new meteorological infrastructure which would cross-cross the empire, making possible both the planning of routes, and the short-term prediction of weather conditions for a particular journey. In 1925, the meteorological division at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire produced the first synoptic chart showing the simultaneous weather conditions along the entire England-India route; a significant moment in British imperial meteorology:

Source: National Archives, Kew, MPI 1/410/6

Alongside these synoptic efforts sat a new set of practices of studying the atmosphere on a new, finer scale. The vertical structure of the atmosphere had been a growing object of meteorological concern since the late 19th century. But the particular characteristics of airships – their capacity to affected by the wind, to be destabilised by the subtlest changes in atmospheric conditions – meant that the atmosphere as a medium demanded new strategies of knowledge-making. The gustiness of wind was measured on new, finer timescales; the effects of relatively minor changes in topography on the structure of the overlying air were newly appraised.

The airship is therr101-shatted-gloryefore a propitious figure through which to think about the relationships between the gaseous materiality of the air and human action, and to examine how historical actors have sought to make these relationships visible, legible, predictable, and subject to what we might now call ‘risk management’. The relationship between airship and atmosphere became a site of epistemic controversy during the development of the imperial scheme, with a number of critics claiming the impossibility of stable flight, and challenging the widely propagandised claims of luxurious long-distance travel, and of ‘fox-trotting in the clouds’. When the flagship R101 crashed into a hillside in northern France on its maiden voyage to India, amid strong winds and driving rain, much of the subsequent inquests focused on the ship’s dynamic stability, on weather forecasts which underestimated the storm, and on the responsibility for the decision to fly in spite of forecasts which nonetheless suggested a difficult journey. The moral economy of the decision to dive into this violent atmospheric milieu that night in October 1930 was unpicked and debated in settings from the popular press, an official Court of Inquiry, and a series of extraordinary séances with deceased crew members. In the end, responsibility was not laid upon any individual but was, interestingly, given to what was described as an distinctive atmosphere of urgency, expectation and impatience which existed in-between the different groups of actors involved.

The airship, particularly the imperial airships of the 1920s and ‘30s, therefore provide an ideal figure through which to think through the intersections of material and affective atmospheres. But they also provide an opportunity to write the meteorologist into emerging literatures on the cultural and elemental geographies of air and atmosphere, and perhaps to re-consider the permeability of the boundary between matter and affect in the moral economy of weather knowledges and prediction.

I explored some of these ideas in a recent paper at the RGS-IBG annual conference and a subsequent seminar with the London Group of Historical Geographers. I plan to write it up into a full paper at some point next year, after a few more archival forays, particularly regarding the séances which, I suspect, may hold the key to understanding much of the story of this intersection of technology, atmosphere and risk. I’ll be penning a few more blog posts along the way, as my thinking develops.

A 1924 cutaway plan of R101’s interior. Source: Airship Heritage Trust.