No man-made vehicle has ever presented such an awe-inspiring spectacle

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

When Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program was considering a nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship, Mechanix Illustrated suggested something even better, an Atoms-For-Peace dirigible. What could go wrong?

Unlike a ship, the dirigible moves in an aerial ocean that completely envelops our globe. Hence, it can display its wares anywhere on the face of the earth. Seas, mountains and deserts present no barrier. Neither, considering its mission of peaceful education, should national frontiers.


A modern dirigible would be unique, the cynosure of all eyes. Unlike the ship, one-third of whose bulk is hidden by the water in which it rides, the dirigible discloses every inch of its dramatic size as it coasts along against the clear backdrop of the sky. The lower it flies, the more majestic it appears, as anyone who saw the Akron, Macon or Hindenburg will testify. No man-made vehicle has ever presented such an awe-inspiring spectacle as a giant airship breaking through a low-hanging cloud or cruising above the rooftops of a darkened city.


Its effect upon the peoples of the world would be many times more potent than that of an ordinary-looking, seaborne freighter. The fact that the dirigible, traveling at relatively low speeds and altitudes, a silvery giant by day and dramatically illuminated at night, will be visible to practically everyone en route, makes it the perfect Atoms-For-Peace transport. It can show our flag in every nook and corner of the globe, scattering as it goes messages of good will in every literate dialect.


I suppose that part’s true. What did they propose?

Magnesium, titanium and strong, lightweight Fiberglas promise greater ruggedness and durability with less poundage. This improved weight-strength ratio opens new possibilities to the dirigible engineer. For instance, the single, bottom-keel structure, an outgrowth of age-old surface ship design, might be augmented by external side and top “keels,” containing additional passenger accommodations. These extra stiffeners would vastly strengthen the airship longitudinally without too great a weight penalty.


In place of the Akron and Macon pickup gear and airplane hangar, a modern helicopter landing pad and internal hangar deck might be installed atop the hull’s center section. Built in the form of a shock-absorbing elevator, the pad could lift the copter clear of the hull for take-off and after landing, lower it to the level of the protected hangar deck for the safe, comfortable unloading of passengers. This is merely a reversal of the earlier airplane setup with the added safety advantage that both copter and airship travel at the same speed. The copter could provide a ferry service en route and at points where it is inadvisable or impractical to land the airship.


Another possibility is the development of water landing gear. A seagoing dirigible, embodying a water-tight hull and lower gas bag, was recently publicized in Germany. MI feels, however, that retractable pontoons of inflated rubber would prove lighter and more efficient. They need not be large, as airships can be trimmed so as to be almost weightless. Water, pumped up from the surface — using the hose gear long since perfected — would provide ballast to hold the ship down when anchored.

Due to the horsepower limitations of the early internal-combustion engines, dirigible designers have always had to install multiple power plants, scattered along the length of the ship. This has not proven too good an arrangement. In addition to difficulties in coordination, the propeller slip-streams have added to the skin friction of the hull with a consequent increase in drag. Modern research indicates that some form of dragless stern propulsion would better the airship’s efficiency and speed by as much as 15 per cent.

With this in mind, MI weighed the various power plant possibilities.

The final solution proved to be the easiest to apply and the one that offers the maximum advantages weight wise. This is a midship atomic steam plant using turbines to generate electricity. Comparatively lightweight wiring car ries the juice to the stern of the ship where an electric motor drives a huge, four-bladed, reversible propeller. To assist in landing and take-off maneuvers, ducted fans are mounted in gimbals in the forward and after stabilizers. These enable the skipper to move his ship up, down or at sidewise angles.

The fission plant is of the latest type, consisting of a central reactor contained within the core of a cylindrical heat-exchanger, the whole being enclosed in lightweight, laminated shielding. Its operation is simple. Steam, generated in the exchanger by the heat of fission, is ducted to twin turbine-generator installations set on either side of the reactor. Passing successively through high and low pressure turbines, the used steam is condensed and routed back to the heat exchanger in a closed system. The turbines drive twin generators and the electricity thus produced, passes into storage batteries. While heavier than a single installation, the duplicate turbine generators provide a safety factor, one being always available in the event of mechanical failure or repair work on the other.

This compact arrangement is mounted on a reinforced deck within the hull and may be readily reached from the exhibition hall directly below it. Galleries around the engine room permit visitors to inspect the unique plant without interference or danger to themselves. If the public exhibition is considered sufficiently important, a water shielded “fishbowl” type of reactor might be used. While heavier and less compact, it would provide a more impressive show.

The power plant used in the atomic submarine Nautilus weighed roughly three times as much as the entire Hindenburg. That seems like a stumbling block.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    They always overlook some crucial detail.

    Never fall too much in love with your own ideas. Love is blind.

  2. Kirk says:

    There’s so much of this technologic dreamwork in the post-WWII era that it’s not even funny. It was around before then, but nowhere near as delusional or deeply crazy. Something about winning (or, in the case of Germany, losing…) WWII led to an incredible amount of hubris in all realms. Everyone thought that the five-year period where we went from piston-powered aircraft and relatively primitive weapons to the atomic bomb and guided missiles somehow meant that everything was now attainable.

    Of course, atomic fusion, superconductors, and flying cars still remain “…twenty years away…” for those of us still here in reality, version 2020.

  3. CVLR says:

    Which is more likely:

    1. Shortly following WWII, the military-industrial complex magically lost its ability to develop new and exotic technologies.

    2. Shortly following WWII, the military-industrial complex no longer had any strong incentive to publish its new and exotic technologies.

    And as for me, I just want to know what’s under the ice.

  4. Albion says:

    “it can display its wares anywhere on the face of the earth”

    That’s it, in a nutshell. This monster dirigible can be seen by all, as a continual demonstration of the might of the manufacturing nation (with the added bonus it can carry military muscle, too, in case you needed a reminder).

    Look up and wonder, ye peasants, or as Shelley said how it would end:

    ‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

  5. Harry Jones says:

    CVLR, technology doesn’t develop itself. You have to make R&D a priority or it won’t happen.

    The space race happened. It happened for a reason. Since then, there’a been no real government-driven technological progress, because there’s been no incentive.

    Someone once said “government is just a word for the things we do together.” What if we don’t want to do anything together? Vision must come from outside.

  6. Dan Kurt says:

    As I am approaching 80 rapidly my memories of the ’50s when I was a youth fade but I sure remember the science magazines aimed at my demographic: Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Mechanix Illustrated.

    My recollection is that their value and authority as perceived by me was in this order with the highest to lowest being: Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and then Mechanix Illustrated. I had a subscription to Popular Mechanics but could read the other two at my local branch Carnegie Library.

    Those were the days. So much optimism.

  7. Groot says:

    Technology is knowledge made flesh.

    Knowledge, as they say, is power. Is power shared or hoarded?

    Culture is downstream of economics, economics is downstream of property, property is downstream of technology, and technology is downstream of knowledge.

    The state is a machine; there is a machine of state. It is intrinsically and inherently technocratic, and those who sponsor the technologists who create and maintain its operating levers are its masters.

    But does it stop here? People quarrel. Groups quarrel. Gangs quarrel. When gangs quarrel, where does the authority of the state end and the gang begin?

    And just why did things get so weird after 1974, 2001, and 2013?

    What is the meaning of the Great Intermission?

    Do you still think that you are going to die of the flu?

  8. Wang Wei Lin says:

    “No man-made vehicle has ever presented such an awe-inspiring spectacle as a giant airship…”

    True as far as it goes, but the Saturn V and Falcon Heavy are damn impressive.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    Groot, everything that works is a machine. The question is: works for whom? Serves whose purpose?

    (But not every machine works.)

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