The Mystery of the Hindenburg Disaster Finally Solved?

The disaster is one of the most famous in history, but scientists have been divided for decades as to what actually caused it.

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It’s hard to believe there’s much mystery still surrounding the Hindenburg disaster. After all, the largest airship in history was not only filled with hydrogen — a notoriously combustible gas — but the horrific incident was one of the first disasters to be captured in real time — on film, in photos and on the radio (not to mention immortalized in Led Zeppelin album cover art).

But 76 years on, scientists still haven’t been able to definitively say what actually caused the spectacular 1937 explosion as the German airship attempted to dock in Lakehurst, N.J.

An investigation into the incident concluded that a spark had ignited leaking hydrogen, reports The Independent, but the cause of the spark or the leak were never determined. Possible theories ranged from lightning to a saboteur’s bomb, planted in an attempt to destabilize Hitler’s Nazi regime.

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But now, a team at the South West Research Institute in San Antonio, Tex. led by British scientist Jem Stansfield, believes it has an answer. According to the Independent, the scientific team explains how it happened in an upcoming British documentary:

The airship had become charged with static as a result of an electrical storm. A broken wire or sticking gas valve leaked hydrogen into the ventilation shafts, and when ground crew members ran to take the landing ropes they effectively “earthed” the airship. The fire appeared on the tail of the airship, igniting the leaking hydrogen.

‘I think the most likely mechanism for providing the spark is electrostatic,’ said Mr Stansfield. ‘That starts at the top, then the flames from our experiments would’ve probably tracked down to the centre. With an explosive mixture of gas, that gave the whoomph when it got to the bottom.’

During its time, the Hindenburg was heralded as a technological marvel and could cross the Atlantic in a mere three days — half the time it took to cross the same ocean by sea. But the disaster, which took a total of 36 lives, marked the dramatic end of the airship era.

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Umm, this idea was "proven" as far back as at least 1988 which was when my book on German airships was printed.

RichardRabinowitz 1 Like

When editing a media article, proofreading is important. Otherwise, the audience will make fun of your errors. For example, 2013 is 76 years after 1937, not 67 years after 1937. **And it can be surprisingly difficult. I had to correct that first "1937" just right now from a "2013", which led to much laughing. **

hopalong 1 Like

When someone says that they have solved some mystery they should have some proof in hand. This is just another guess to go along with all of the other guesses over the years. Move along folks, nothing to see here.


So it's not a spark, it's a spark.  Is this like the proverbial academic who spent 40 years proving that Homer didn't write the Illiad, but instead a completely different guy named Homer did?


Reading the Wikipedia article on the Hindenburg Disaster is important as is the reference to Addison Bain in that article.  I had the opportunity to burn the remake of the covering fabric that Addison had (on the basis of an authentic sample which he possessed).  The aluminum filled coated fabric is extremely flammable. If the fabric ignited,it would be trouble.   It doesn't look like SWRI has something new.

JohnLittle 1 Like

This theory was proposed in the 60's, it is nothing new.... My father was stationed at Lakehurst from 1958 to 1975, I spent a lot time playing on that base and know the site and hanger #1 were it had been kept, On the walls in hanger #1 was written 10 probable causes, The first cause was Static electricity from the damp air from the approaching storm, and the wet rope to ground causing a spark. These guys are trying to get famous on known facts......


I think a dronwn shot it down.


I don't want to be picky here but Wikipedia lists Jem Stansfield as an "inventor and TV presenter," not a scientist, and a search at the South West Research Institute website shows nothing related to Stansfield, Hindenburg, hydrogen explosions, etc. The article on the Independent is a semi-promotional one for Stansfield's TV show on Thursday, so perhaps this is more designed to generate interest in the program rather than a final scientific conclusion.


@MerryMarjie  The Southwest Research Institute did the science, while Stansfield paid the bill most likely.  Southwest is a pretty highly regarded research center.


WOW! You just figured that out? I guess that aircraft charging is some amazing mystery.... Anyone see "Hunt for Red October" where they knew IN ADVANCE that the helicopter dropping the hero onto the boat would be charged? Or when the helicopter that picked up the MER rover parachute drop test accidentally set off the pyros the second it touched the package? Or The accident that Killed Aerospace engineers in the PHSF at KSC when they pulled the cover off of a solid rocket motor and set it off?  Ohhhh.... WAIT I know what sank the Titanic! It was an icberg! Now I want MY recognition for stating the obvious.....

borisbadanov 1 Like

Hydrogen go boom.

Where's my Nobel Prize?

AdamRussell 2 Like

I think the static theory has been fairly well accepted for some time.  This is not a new discovery.

AdamRussell 2 Like

Not only is hydrogen highly flammable, but it is also the smallest atom so it leaks very easily.

Bijdehans 1 Like

At least one myth was busted: that of unequalled German engineering. To put a notoriously combustible gas inside a highly flammable fabric and hope for non-static conditions during flight was very weird indeed...

SwenRichter 1 Like

@Bijdehans actually the United states has prevented the export of helium to the nazi regime for years, The US was and is the producer of almost all the helium in the world. The German's  wanted helium but since the US wouldn't sell it to them they had to produce Hydrogen from water which anyone can do. Nice uneducated theory though...


@SwenRichter @Bijdehans 

Swen - I think you fail to understand the meaning of "uneducated."  Besides, what Bijdehans said wasn't even incorrect.  Only a year earlier, in 1936, Hitler tired to show the world the superiority of the Aryan race at the Olympics and was proven incorrect by Jesse Owens.  The Nazis' engineering prowess was similarly not as invulnerable as they had earlier boasted.

What Bijdehans said and your response have little to do with one-another

RichardGould 2 Like

Yep, I see Technical Expert Reporter,all over these credentials.....Erica Ho was previously a reporter for TIME in Hong Kong where she wrote about technology, pop culture and Asian international affairs. Before that, she worked at Gizmodo, Lifehacker and AOL. She now currently runs Map Happy, a travel-oriented site.

Read more:

Looking forward to her next Story from  the Middle School Science fair,where Students determined that the Titanic sank due taking on as much water,as it had Cubic Feet within itself......

AndyDaniel 2 Like

Actually, the tragedy was not broadcast live on the radio. The reporter was making a recording using a mechanical recorder (not tape - basically like an old-style record-player recoding being etched in real time) to be aired later. So while his comments (usually reported as "Oh the humanity!" but quite possibly "all the humanity" when heard in context) were recorded in real time as he watched the fire, radio listeners only heard it later that day.

notLostInSpace 1 Like

A more interesting story would be on how these guys in San Antonio got funded to research this super important problem that has dogged mankind for 76 or 67 years (depending on your perspective).  I'm sniffing some pork......

WasteTimeAndGet 5 Like

A few missing items from the last "Hindenberg Mystery Solved" report some 20 years ago:

- The fabric covering the ship was also highly flammable.  Essentially solid rocket fuel painted over canvas.

- The fabric covering the ship was also somewhat conductive, comprised of powdered aluminum.

- There was a hole in the outer covering caused by weather during the crossing, which was patched with blankets.

Now, when the handling lines were dropped (they hit the ground before anyone touched them), there was a static discharge.  This charge was redistributed throughout the frame and skin of the ship, just as always, but in this particular case, the nonconductive patch caused sparks to jump the gap.  These sparks ignited the fabric at the top of the ship near the tail.

Although the fabric was highly flammable, it was able to burn for about a minute before spreading enough to be observed from the ground and to begin igniting the hydrogen.

Case solved.  Some time ago.

DanCreagan 1 Like

Wow... static electricity caused a spark?  Heh... that was theorized the same day it happened.  Not a really newsworthy article.  I could overlook the dyslexic 67 but not the claim to solving a 76 year old puzzle.

volitans 1 Like

FYI:  1937 was 76 years ago not 67  :)


just another amazingly uninteresting thing coming out of San Antonio. I was born and raised in that town, and when I was old enough to figure it out I got the f**k outta there lickity-split. Strip-malls, churches, restaurants and some seriously narrow-minded, dimwitted people. that whole town should go down like the hindenburg

GregClapton 1 Like

Someone actually paid for this research? I really like his conclusion: "A broken wire or sticking gas valve leaked hydrogen". Based on what evidence?

stevenjgarner 1 Like

This article is very misleading, and does not do justice to the scientific enquiries regarding the Hindenburg (see Scientific American etc).

It was most likely not the hydrogen that burned (although it obviously did vent).  Just because a highly volatile substance is present, does not mean that substance was involved.   If you want a comprehensive report on this, read the Wikipedia article on the "Hindenburg_disaster" - "the fire was reported as burning bright red, while pure hydrogen burns blue if it's visible at all although there were many other materials that were consumed by the fire which could have changed its hue."

BillPranty 3 Like

"67 years on" from the 1937 event = 2004. Was this written 9 years ago?

eoyguy 1 Like

@BillPranty Considering the content and conclusion of the piece, it may well have been recycled from 2004. Or 1954 for that matter, since static electricity was one of the earliest theories. Obviously math (or history, research and  journalism) aren't their strong points.

eoyguy 3 Like

I am flabbergasted....that they took up time and space to pass this off as news. Perhaps someone wanted to "Punk"Ms. Ho into doing this story, representing as some new breakthrough. Considering the knowledge of history that  most people under about 30 posses, she probably had to look up Hindenburg before doing this story, and was shocked that it blew up and hadn't hit an iceberg after all...

OH the huge manatee! 

yullremember 2 Like

Todays News lacks good editing by seasoned and knowledgeable people that in the past kept ignorance like this from its readers.

RDriftwood 3 Like

There is absolutely nothing new about this theory.  Static electricity + hydrogen was the reason cited for the explosion and fire decades ago.  I think I heard this explanation from a science teacher in high school 45 years ago.

norkio 1 Like

They did this on MythBusters at least 5 years ago.


@norkio Though Mythbusters focused on the skin of the Hindenberg and not the electricity.

WayneGage 2 Like

It was not hydrogen burning that lit up the sky. Hydrogen will burn with a diminished blue. The coating on the outside of the Hindenburg was powdered aluminum and ferrous oxide, a very volitile mixture.