15 Facts About the Hindenburg

LZ-129 Hindenburg, a rigid airship manufactured in Germany by the Zeppelin Company, catches fire as it comes in for a landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.
LZ-129 Hindenburg, a rigid airship manufactured in Germany by the Zeppelin Company, catches fire as it comes in for a landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Rigid zeppelins used to carry the rich and well-to-do across the Atlantic Ocean in style. But after the Hindenburg disaster—in which a German airship caught fire and crashed in New Jersey on May 6, 1937—the industry went belly up. Here are a few things you might not know about the ill-fated flying machine.

1. The Hindenburg was built using metal from an airship that had exploded.

Construction on the 804-foot-long LZ-129 Hindenburg began in 1931. The Friedrichshafen, Germany-based Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company purchased Duralumin from the remains of Britain's R-101 hydrogen airship, which had crashed in October 1930, and used the material (a light but hard alloy of aluminum, copper, and other metals) to make parts for the Hindenburg.

2. The Hindenburg was partially funded by the Nazis.

Hugo Eckener—the long-serving president of the company that manufactured the Hindenburg—had well-known disagreements with the Nazi Party. Still, when construction of the Hindenburg lagged due to the effects of the depression, he accepted money from the Nazis to fund its construction in 1934. It wouldn't be the Nazi regime's last contribution, either: An even bigger injection of funds would soon follow, which resulted in the company being split into two companies: the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company, responsible for building airships, and the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, responsible for operating them. The ship was completed in 1936.

3. The Hindenburg was named after a former German president.

The name was a tribute to Paul von Hindenburg, a distinguished general who became Germany’s second president during the Weimar Republic era and appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933. He died in 1934.

4. The Hindenburg was supposed to be filled with helium—but hydrogen was used instead.

Hydrogen-powered airships didn’t have the best safety record, so the Hindenburg’s designers planned to fill it with non-flammable helium gas. However, America had a corner on the helium market, as well as a law on the books declaring that “no helium gas shall be exported from the United States” without approval from the president and various cabinet officials. So German engineers had no choice but to pump the Hindenburg full of flammable hydrogen—a switch that had horrific consequences.

5. The Hindenburg made an appearance at the 1936 Olympics.

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was behind the initial Nazi contribution to the Hindenburg's construction. According to Airships.net, Goebbels was "aware of the potential symbolic value of LZ-129 as a showcase for German strength and technology." After its completion, the ship was used to help promote Adolf Hitler’s interests. On August 1, 1936, the Hindenburg flew over the Reichssportfeld complex in Berlin to kick off that year’s Summer Olympic games. By then, swastika flags had been painted on the tail fins.

6. The Hindenburg made many trips across the Atlantic.

During the 1936 flight season, it finished 17 round-trip crossings of the ocean, and even set a new record that July by flying across the Atlantic—and back—in just five days, 19 hours, and 51 minutes. At the time, this was the fastest double-crossing of the Atlantic ever carried out.

7. The Hindenburg's fares weren't cheap.

Among the people who died in the Hindenburg disaster was American Burtis J. Dolan, who bought a one-way ticket on the ill-fated flight for 1000 Reichsmarks. During the Great Depression, that was the equivalent of roughly $450. Thanks to inflation, Dolan’s ticket would cost around $8000 today.

8. The Hindenburg flew over New York City in its final hours.

Thirty-six passengers boarded the Hindenburg in Frankfurt on May 3, 1937. The ship's ultimate destination was Lakehurst, New Jersey, which took them right over New York. One passenger would later remark that “in the mist the skyscrapers below us appeared like a board full of nails.” They also interrupted a baseball game.

8. The Hindenburg disaster unfolded in less than a minute.

At 7:25 p.m., around 180 feet above the ground, the Hindenburg suddenly caught fire. Within 40 seconds, the inferno stripped away the airship's fabric covering and the metal framework crashed down to Earth.

9. The death toll of the Hindenburg disaster was surprisingly low.

When the Hindenburg was incinerated, there were 97 passengers and crew on board. Sixty-two survived—including its captain Max Pruss and professional acrobat Joseph Spah (who escaped through a window). Most bystanders were likewise unscathed, although one ground worker was killed by the falling ship. In total, 36 people died.

10. What caused the Hindenburg to catch fire is a mystery.

Even now, scientists are unsure about what set the Hindenburg ablaze. According to a 1937 investigation, the trouble started when some of the ship’s hydrogen leaked into the electrically charged atmosphere. At some point, an “electrostatic discharge” ignited the gas, dooming the zeppelin. Conflicting eyewitness accounts and incomplete camera footage have only deepened the mystery.

11. A retired NASA scientist blamed the Hindenburg disaster on paint.

In the 1990s, Addison Bain put forth a theory that the Hindenburg was covered in paints which chemically resembled rocket fuel. He believed that this—and not the hydrogen containers—was the main culprit behind the raging fire. However, those skeptical of the theory think that if the paint had behaved like rocket fuel, the ship’s outer canvas would have burned much faster than it actually did [PDF]. (Bain also sought to restore hydrogen's good name and advocated the use of hydrogen as an aerospace fuel.)

12. Herb Morrison's voice is distorted on his famous recording recounting the Hindenburg disaster.

Herb Morrison was working as a reporter for a Chicago-based radio station when he witnessed the Hindenburg disaster firsthand. His narration of the tragedy was replayed across the country, becoming almost as famous as the event itself. But the recording of Morrison’s report—complete with the now-iconic line “Oh, the humanity!”—artificially distorted his voice, making it sound a lot higher than it really was.

13. The Hindenburg and the Titanic had many similarities.

Though they went down 25 years apart, both ships will be forever linked in the public mind thanks to their tragic and well-documented ends. Both were mail ships, both were luxurious, and both boasted the top technology of their day. And it turns out they had similar dimensions. The Titanic was lengthier, measuring about 882 feet long from bow to stern. But while that passenger ship was only 92.5 feet across at its widest point, the Hindenburg had the impressive width of 135 feet. When it came to maximum occupancy, there was no contest. The Hindenburg could only accommodate 72 passengers (at most), the Titanic had room for around 2500.

14. Werner G. Doehner, the Hindenburg disaster's last survivor, passed away on November 8, 2019.

The German-born Doehner was just 8 years old when he, his two siblings, and his mother and father boarded the Hindenburg. His father and sister were killed in the crash. Doehner would go on to become an engineer for General Electric; he died at age 90.

15. The Hindenburg was the largest craft to ever fly.

More than three times longer than a Boeing 747, the Hindenburg (and its sister ship, which never flew a regular passenger route) was the largest craft to fly. It had a top speed of 84 mph and a cruising speed of 78 mph.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

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