Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Schwarz Worth Remembering

History often forgets about true heroes and geniuses, and credits the wrong people. One of these forgotten ones was a Schwarz who should have been famous but whom people now know very little about.

This Schwarz, a Croatian Jew with a first name of David, was the inventor and builder of the world’s first rigid all-metal airship. This credit is usually attributed to Graf (Count) Ferninand von Zeppelin, but although he had made some theoretical plans, they never materialized until he bought detailed papers from David Schwarz’s widow, after the all too early death of the wood merchant and inventor. The first test flight in 1896 near Berlin was not a great success, mainly because of the inferior quality hydrogen gas used. The inventor was on his way to witness the next flight when he died in Vienna at the age of 45 the following year. However, his widow went to Germany after the funeral and a successful test flight took place in Tempelhof (see picture). Unfortunately, one of the propellers malfunctioned, causing the aircraft to crash from an altitude of over 400 meters (1,300 feet). Later von Zeppelin paid 15,000 marks to Melanie Schwarz for some critical information and started work on his own airships, better know as Zeppelins.

Count von Zeppelin had his own bad luck with the many crafts he built and it wasn’t until after his death that Dr. Hugo Eckener improved the design and was able to start a passenger service across the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of this era was the first flight around the world in 1929, by ‘Graf Zeppelin’. Eckener wanted to use helium, an inert noble gas, instead of very flammable hydrogen, but the United States would not let him purchase it, due to a military embargo. In 1937 the ‘Hindenburg’ was destroyed by fire while landing after a trans-Atlantic flight in Lakehurst, possibly by hitting electrical wires. 35 of the 97 passengers died, and one ground crew member as well. Just about everyone has seen film footage of this catastrophe. The arrival of the mighty airship was a major event and there were thousands of spectators present. This marked an unfortunate end to the Zeppelin era, although even the fanciest airplanes today cannot match the luxury and comfort of those magnificent cruise ships of the air.

As the Zeppelin should have been called the Schwarz, perhaps the Led Zeppelin (the ‘a’ was dropped from the band’s name to prevent Americans from pronouncing it ‘leed’) would have become a Lead Schwarz.

Thanks to bringing this trivia to my attention belongs to my daughter Anna, who as a regular fan of television’s ‘Jeopardy’, frequently comes up with her version of ‘Jewpardy’ for her school’s Hillel.