Hydrogen is the simplest element and occupies the first slot of the periodic table. Hydrogen is extremely reactive, and because of this, most of the hydrogen on Earth is found combined with other elements. Hydrogen gas is made up of two atoms of hydrogen. When hydrogen reacts with oxygen it releases a lot of heat, so not only has hydrogen gas been used in many applications ranging from rocket fuel to blowtorches, but the fact that the end product of the reaction is water makes it a clean source of energy. Hydrogen gas also has a density lower than that of air, so it floats and was used to create buoyancy for many of the so-called airships (aka dirigibles or zeppelins).
During their heyday from the early 1900s to 1937, airships were a sight to behold in the skies, and they became very popular making their way into things ranging from children’s toys and postage stamps to songs. Since hydrogen is flammable, helium was considered a much safer gas to fill the air ships. However, helium was expensive to obtain and not as buoyant as hydrogen. An airship could carry a significantly bigger payload when inflated with hydrogen. The most famous and largest of the airships was the German airship, Hindenburg, which Nazi Germany often showcased for propaganda purposes. The Hindenburg flew the world and crossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times until its fiery demise in an airfield in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937. The leading hypothesis for the explosion is that static electricity buildup in the Hindenburg’s metal frame, as a result of storms in the area, set fire to the hydrogen gas. The Hindenburg’s notorious accident was the last of a long list of hydrogen airships mishaps, and it put an end to the airship era. The explosion was captured in film and has become one of the most recognized disasters in human history (see video below).
The famous narration of the event in the video above is by journalist Herbert Morrison. Back in 1937 the narration and the film were not presented simultaneously. The narration was recorded, processed, and later played over the radio, and the film was shown in theaters. Only decades later were the two put together. Morrison’s narration is also famous because he employs the phrase “Oh the humanity” which has become a cultural trope used in many contexts in the modern era.
In the video below, Jared Owen uses 3-D animations to explain what happened to the Hindenburg.