When Giants Roamed the Sky: Karl Arnstein and the Rise of Airships from Zeppelin to Goodyear


Karl Arnstein's life was defined by the world wars which shattered Europe. But for these cataclysmic events, his life's work might have been far different. From Zeppelin in Germany to Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, Arnstein participated in the design and development of more airships than any other engineer. He could have been a philosopher or mathematician, but a desire to be practical attracted Arnstein to civil engineering. This knowledge spared him from the horrors of trench warfare, and a favorable impression he ...
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Karl Arnstein's life was defined by the world wars which shattered Europe. But for these cataclysmic events, his life's work might have been far different. From Zeppelin in Germany to Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, Arnstein participated in the design and development of more airships than any other engineer. He could have been a philosopher or mathematician, but a desire to be practical attracted Arnstein to civil engineering. This knowledge spared him from the horrors of trench warfare, and a favorable impression he made on airship pioneer Count Zeppelin unexpectedly took him from the front to an aircraft factory in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Here Arnstein adapted his analysis of utilitarian structures fixed firmly to the ground to examination of flying structures, the Zeppelins. And it is not just for his contributions to Zeppelin design that Arnstein should be remembered. His story is in many ways the story of airship building in the early decades of the twentieth century. And his legacy endures in the Goodyear blimps which are the tire company's corporate icons and symbols of Akron's important airship heritage. Appendices include a listing of Karl Arnstein's patents, a list of selected writings by Karl Arnstein, and statistics on LuftschiffBau-Zeppelin airships and U.S. Navy rigid airships.
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Editorial Reviews

Describes the career and contributions of Zeppelin designer Karl Arnstein and chronicles the growth of the airship industry in the early decades of the 20th century. Tells the story of Arnstein's education and his move from Germany to the US, and his work for a company that became a major defense contractor in WWII. Includes b&w historical and personal photos, and color illustrations. Topping worked for Goodyear Aerospace Corporation and Bell Aerospace-Textron. Brothers is a freelance journalist. He succeeded Topping as editor of . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781884836695
  • Publisher: University of Akron Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Series: Ohio History and Culture Series
  • Pages: 277
  • Product dimensions: 9.50 (w) x 10.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dale Topping (1917-1993) held a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in theoretical and applied mechanics. During his career he worked for Bell Aerospace-Textron and Goodyear Aerospace Corporation. Eric Brothers is a native of Akron and freelance journalist. He succeeded Dale Topping as editor of Buoyant Flight.
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Read an Excerpt

When Giants Roamed the Sky

By Dale Topping

The University of Akron Press

ISBN: 1-884836-69-0

Chapter One


Karl Arnstein did not intend to pursue a career in engineering. Nevertheless, he became a pioneer in the field of stress analysis, the means by which an engineer can state with some degree of certainty that materials used in a structure will be strong enough to perform the task desired of them. He applied this knowledge to save a cathedral tower from collapse, to design structurally efficient bridges, to create a building that was both aerodynamic and the largest enclosed space without pillars, and most notably, to perfect the design of giant airships-both the Zeppelin type and blimps. (Words in boldface type are included in the glossary.) He became the head of engineering for a company that at one time employed 30,000 in the construction of a wide range of aircraft and aerospace components for national defense. He said that "in the more important phases of my life you will see that most of the basic changes have not been consequences of my own plans but rather of mere accidental happenings of little apparent significance." Yet in retrospect, the successive developments in his career do show progress, and a thread of connectivity. His interest in art, architecture, mathematics, and philosophy ultimately found expression in engineering. He was not a born tinkerer-his interest in high school was to become a mathematics professor. How did heend up an engineer? To understand that, one must first find out something about the man and the environment in which he was raised.

Karl Arnstein's parents lived in a world of silence. Both Wilhelm and Ida Arnstein lost their hearing in early childhood. Although Wilhelm retained a slight ability to hear, Ida was totally deaf. In an age before the invention of hearing aids, to have both parents hearing-impaired was a challenge to raising a family. Ida was also mute, but Wilhelm was able to speak, and both he and his wife communicated with each other and their children by sign language and by lip reading. Though each was of Jewish descent, they attended a school for the deaf which was run by Catholic nuns.

Wilhelm Arnstein was born on 14 April 1847 in Wotitz, a country town in Bohemia about thirty miles south of Prague on the rail line to Vienna. Modern maps show it as Votice, in the Czech Republic. Wilhelm's parents had a general store there, and during his early childhood Karl visited his grandmother for vacations, his grandfather having died some years earlier.

As a boarding student, Wilhelm was sent to the Institute for the Deaf in Prague run by the Catholic Church from 1855 to 1861. At the age of fourteen, he began study at the Academy for Lithography where he graduated in 1865. Wilhelm joined the Association of Lithographers and was employed by the firm of A. Thun in Brunn (modern Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic), located some 130 miles east of Prague. He worked there from September 1867 until November 1875. Wilhelm then returned to Prague, where he was employed by a book-printing firm until his retirement.

Ida Feigl was the daughter of Dr. Leopold Feigl, a physician for the general staff of the Austrian Army in Bohemia (part of the present-day Czech Republic). Her mother was Amalia Reach of Prague. Dr. Feigl died of cholera on 13 September 1856 at the age of forty-three. He contracted the disease while attending victims of an epidemic, and for his unselfish work he was given a posthumous citation. Still a child, Ida was now fatherless and handicapped by hearing and speech deficiencies. She also attended the Institute for the Deaf and it was there she met her future husband, Wilhelm Arnstein. We do not know much of Ida's young adulthood, but she became reacquainted with Wilhelm after he returned to Prague. They were married on 7 August 1881.

Their marriage produced three children: Poldi, the daughter and the oldest; then Karl, who was born 24 March 1887, and later a younger brother named Otto. All were fine, healthy, normal children except that Karl lost the hearing in his right ear during a childhood illness.

They were a devoted family. Wilhelm was a strict but wise father who wanted to guide his children toward high goals, though the family income was modest. By the 1890s, they were living in a small but immaculate apartment in the Koenigliche Weinberge, the King's Vineyard. Simply known as the Weinberge (its Czech name is Vinohrady), the community was a "solid, middle-class inner suburb" of Prague and home of the future first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Masaryk.

The reason for the Germanic names of the neighborhood and members of the Arnstein (ARN-stine) family may need explanation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of Bohemia was approximately two-thirds Czech and one-third German, but most of the Germans were concentrated along the borders with Germany in what later became a part of the Sudetenland. The presence of so many Germans in the region gave Hitler the pretext to take over Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. After World War II, the Czechs made sure there would be no repeat annexation of their lands by expelling the Germans. In Prague the German share of the population was 13 percent in 1880 but fell to 6 percent in 1900 when the total population had doubled. Bohemia then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs, an arrangement which made the Czech nationalists unhappy, but was agreeable to the Germans. The official language of the Austrian-centered empire was, of course, German.

Ida had accepted the Roman Catholic faith, likely influenced by her teachers at the Institute for the Deaf, although she did not officially join a Catholic church. Wilhelm's religious views are not precisely known. We do know that the family was befriended by a Roman Catholic priest who visited them often and gave them helpful advice. Karl was confirmed in the Roman Catholic faith early in his adulthood. His choice of Catholicism, he told a friend many years later, was inspired by the kindness of the priest who had befriended his parents and of the nuns who ran the school where they had been educated. His mother's influence no doubt figured prominently as well: she gave young Karl a rosary to carry in his pocket when he went to take school examinations, especially important or difficult ones. As an adult, Karl would attend Mass every Sunday, go to confession and communion regularly, and see to it that all four of his children were raised as Roman Catholics.

As a boy, Karl proved to be a brilliant student, especially in mathematics. A report card from his school days noted that he not only had perfect grades but perfect deportment. By taking special examinations he was able to win scholarships that would allow him to attend a realschule (a type of high school) and later a university. The family circumstances being modest, these scholarships were essential.

In 1897 Karl was accepted at the Nikolander Deutsche Staatsoberrealschule, which emphasized the study of science and modern languages. The Nikolander school required several years of study in two foreign languages and probably was where Arnstein first learned English. He was also fluent in German and Czech since Prague was a bilingual city. The school curriculum was heavily weighted in mathematics and science to prepare graduates for later specialization at the university level.

The student body at the Nikolander school was of high caliber, and Karl was the second youngest in his class. A precocious youngster, he was assigned to a strict but sagacious arithmetic professor, and to a talented physics teacher. Arnstein proved to be doubly exceptional. When all of the other students were stuck trying to solve mathematical problems, Karl would obtain some difficult equations or a complicated analytical problem and solve them every time.

In addition to his studies, Arnstein still found time to concern himself extensively with literature, art, and stamp collecting. At the age of sixteen, Karl, not satisfied by the lectures of mathematics professors and the prescribed textbooks of the institution, started his own technical library. Arnstein graduated summa cum laude as one of the top students in his class, one of the best in the school's existence. Unfortunately, despite Karl's academic excellence, there was no guarantee that he could continue his schooling. His parents did not have the money to send him to university. However, Karl's brilliance as a student at the Nikolander Realschule and even earlier had marked him as one who could earn a scholarship and make good use of it.

At first, it was not Arnstein's talent in mathematics that was to be recognized for further education. Instead, he was offered a scholarship in art. Many years later he remarked, "They surprised me by offering me a scholarship in art at the University of Prague. I surprised them by not accepting it." But he had a great interest in art, which he satisfied later in life by collecting prints and etchings. He also had natural artistic talent, perhaps acquired from his father, who, though not an artist, had to make exact drawings in his profession of lithographer.

Impressed by his talent, Karl's high school art teacher had encouraged him to become an artist. But his father, Wilhelm, who was making no more than a modest living as a lithographer, advised his son to take engineering so that he could use his talent for drawing more profitably. Karl was not eager to seize upon his father's suggestion of engineering as a profession. Instead, he accepted a scholarship with a concentration on mathematics and courses in philosophy at the University of Prague. "When I finished high school in 1904 my ideal was to become a mathematician," Karl later said. That year Arnstein entered the University of Prague, the oldest university in central Europe. It was founded in 1348 by Charles IV, and its original building, the Carolinum, still exists as part of the modern Universitas Carolina, or Charles University.

Even with a scholarship, Arnstein still had to find time to earn money to support his studies. As he had at the Realschule, Karl tutored students in mathematics. He soon gained the reputation of being able to help a student pass the rigorous mathematical portion of the Matura, an exam required of the students in many countries to be accepted into a university. His days were often long, first attending his classes, then tutoring, and finally going home and studying to prepare for his own classes the next day. In addition to his academic studies, he completed the requirements for a teaching appointment.

Only two blocks away from the university stood a building with a Baroque facade, the German Technical Institute (Deutsche Technische Hochschule). Once a Jesuit seminary, after 1786 it became the engineering school which today is called the Czech Technical Institute. The proximity of the two schools was to prove fateful. Karl became interested in descriptive geometry and wanted to study it, since mathematics was his major subject. But descriptive geometry, although based on solid geometry, is not a mathematical subject. It is the science of drawing, of the exact representation of subjects composed of geometrical forms. Perhaps Arnstein was drawn to it by his interest in art, or possibly by the idea that he might combine his interests in mathematics and art.

Descriptive geometry was not taught at the university, but a course in the subject was offered at the Technical Institute. When Karl went to register for the course he was asked if he was able to pay for it, which he could not afford to do. Thinking of his options, he quickly said, "No, I want to apply for a scholarship." He was told that scholarships were available only to those students taking a full engineering curriculum.

Confident of his ability, and not intimidated by the idea of carrying two full course loads-one at the university and the other at the institute-he turned to a friend standing behind him in line and asked, "Which is the easiest: civil, mechanical, or chemical engineering?" The friend (doubtless a mechanical or chemical engineering student) answered, "Civil engineering!" That is how Karl Arnstein entered the civil engineering profession.

For the next four years, Karl pursued his studies in mathematics and civil engineering with full course loads at the two institutions. At university, he also indulged his interest in philosophy (perhaps his real first love, although for practical reasons he took those courses only as his minor). Remarkably, he completed all of the studies required for a degree in philosophy except for writing a dissertation. Many years later, he told his wife that the study of philosophy had enabled him to accomplish his work, to deal with people, and to weather adversity.

His curiosity in descriptive geometry presumably was satisfied by the course he took, but Karl's inquisitive young mind found still other interests. "I took a general engineering course because of the mathematics, geometry, and physics offered with it," he said, "and found the studies so fascinating that I became a structural engineer, so to say, against my intention." A course he had in bridge engineering was taught under the direction of Professor Joseph Melan, an internationally known designer and consultant on bridges. He became one of the most important influences on Karl Arnstein's life.

Melan was born in Vienna in November 1853 and graduated from the Imperial Technical Institute as a Diploma Engineer in 1876. He taught there for ten years before becoming professor of structural mechanics at the Royal Technical Institute in Brunn, where he was appointed chancellor in 1895. In April 1902, he was called to the German Technical Institute in Prague as professor of bridge structures, and there he remained. Arnstein remembered him as a man of few words, thin and of delicate health, but a genius when it came to analyzing structures.

During his career, Melan helped to calculate the design of many bridges in Europe and the United States. Among American bridges, he worked on the Williamsburg cable suspension bridge and the Hell's Gate steel-arch bridge in New York City. Melan also was involved with projects other than bridges, such as the restoration of the 164-foot tower of Jacobs Church in Brunn in 1901.

Melan's fame rests on the reinforced-concrete system named for him that he developed in the 1890s. His system was patented in Austria-Hungary as well as in other countries and was awarded the Gold Medal at the World Exposition in Paris in 1900. Using this method, numerous bridges and buildings in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and especially in the United States were successfully constructed. Most of the bridges, with the exception of those built in America, were designed by Melan himself.


Excerpted from When Giants Roamed the Sky by Dale Topping Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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