Although airships are popular in the steampunk genre, their heydays came during the era that is typically associated with dieselpunk. They came to share the skies with that other novelty, the aeroplane, but both coexist elegantly in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Aeroplanes represent adventure and perhaps a tad of recklessness and certainly danger while airships exhale confidence and grandeur. By no means fragile, these leviathans represent to us very much an era that was characterized by progress and great confidence in it. And that is very much characteristic of the dieselpunk fiction set in this time.
Airships came to dominate the skies during the interwar era. Germany continued to push the envelope in zeppelin construction while Britain contemplated Empire-wide airship service. It was in the United States, however, that perhaps some of the most ambitious schemes were planned. The Vickers Company proposed to build a craft for transoceanic travel, 800 feet long and 100 feet in diameter, able to carry a hundred passenger in outright luxury.
The ironic image of an airship hovering over the skyline of New York City spoke to the imagination of an entire generation. According to David Szondy, airships “seemed to defy all logic as they floated on their moorings like impossible balloons.” While aeroplanes were still prang-prone string kites, “airships evolved into the true liners of the skies. They were the embodiment of gracious living. They advertised to all the world what technology was capable of. And they crossed mighty oceans with ease while planes were hopping puddles.” Airships commanded confidence and generated optimism about the future.
At least, until the Hindenburg went up like a cheap Chinese lantern at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937.
Before the tragic demise of the Hindenburg, everything seemed possible. Modern Mechanix magazine proposed the construction of an airship so gargantuan that it could carry a fleet of aeroplanes. The Empire State Building’s distinctive Art Deco spire was designed to serve as a mooring mast and depot for dirigibles. The idea proved to be impractical and even dangerous due to the powerful updrafts caused by the size of the building itself. Nonetheless, the image of an airship docking with New York’s greatest monolith came to epitomize the golden era of airship travel.