Chris Bennett 1

January 15, 2014

3 Min Read

How many cows does it take to build a Zeppelin? There was time, a century back, when it wasn’t a foolish question, and Lewis Smith asks and answers it at The Independent. The answer? 250,000.

In 1915, the second year of World War l, aerial bombardment was in its infancy when Germany started sending hydrogen-powered Zeppelins to pound England. There was minimal military effect, but the airships (approximately 500 feet long and capable of speeds up to 50 mph) delivered plenty of psychological terror — from 1915-1917, Zeppelin raids killed 1,500 people.


For more, see World War l harvest of iron still haunts farmers


Inside the massive canvas shells, gas-impermeable bags held the hydrogen gas that kept Zeppelins aloft. The bags were made from made from cow guts — called goldbeater’s skins — and each Zeppelin required 250,000 cows to craft the requisite number of bags. After goldbeater’s were soaked, stretched and dried, they were ideal for bonding — reliable hydrogen-holding sacks.

From the Guardian: “… the quantity of cow intestines used in manufacturing the airships was so enormous — and the military appetite for the dirigibles so strong — that the making of sausages was temporarily outlawed in Germany and allied or occupied parts of Austria, Poland and northern France.”


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German butchers were ordered to turn all goldbeater’s over to the government for Zeppelin use. Sausages were out; Zeppelin raids were in.

Despite hydrogen’s highly flammable make-up, the British had a difficult time bringing down the airships. Even when British aircraft pilots could get high enough to lay down fire, their bullets passed through the Zeppelin bodies with little effect. From the The Telegraph: “Shooting a Zeppelin turns out to be one of the least dangerous things you can do to it. A bullet hole, compared to the scale of the Zeppelin, is not that big. It’s like a pinprick in a child’s balloon — it takes a long time for the gas to seep out.”

But within two years, the British had found a solution with a combination of exploding bullets and tracer bullets — stagger-loaded to produce a lethal one-two punch. The exploding bullets tore into the bags, allowing a significant mixing of hydrogen and oxygen. The tracer bullets came right behind, a flame to detonate the blend.

The Zeppelin bombing runs were over forever — and the sausage makers were back in business.


For more, see World War l harvest of iron still haunts farmers


Follow me on Twitter: @CBennett71 or email me: [email protected]


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