Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Land of the Leftovers: Technological Time Capsules

Rhode Island lawyer Leo Connors had always thought that his office on the 30th floor of Providence’s art deco Fleet National Bank Building (now the Bank of America Building) was at the very top.

But one day in 1953 he found an unmarked door opening on a narrow upward stairway. Passing through two more doors, he entered a long-forgotten, rectangular room fitted out as a dirigible cabin. It had wicker chairs, dark leather-lined walls, vintage light fixtures, fine brass fittings, and a liquor closet. Windows on three sides were framed like those of the Graf Zeppelin, which had been thrilling the public when the skyscraper was new. Altogether the dust-covered room looked like an artifact from some pinched-off timeline, an alternate past in which falcons had to share their aeries with blimps and zeppelins.

But the day of powered gasbags never came to Providence. Shortly after the lounge was finished and furnished in 1928, a string of airship crashes erased all hope for a worldwide web of lighter-than-air routes. England abandoned plans for Britain–Egypt–India–Australia route after the R101 flew into a French hill in 1930. Then the United States canceled plans for a dirigible fleet after a series of disasters that culminated in the loss of the Navy’s great aviation pioneer, Adm. William A. Moffett, when the Akron went down in a storm in 1933. Just about everyone else gave up after seeing the newsreel taken at the Hindenburg’s mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Meanwhile, in terms of all-around performance and reliability, airplane builders zoomed ahead of the dirigibilists.

Today ornithologist Joe Zbyrowski uses the now dilapidated dirigible room in Providence as a blind for his raptor studies. We'll never know what the exact purpose was: rich boys' clubhouse, or an honest-to-God boarding lobby for users of the air yachts that Goodyear hoped to build so long ago. The builders provided a door giving access to the parapets outside, so I'd vote for the latter. There are more such reality-jarring time capsules out there ... fodder for later posts.

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