Main Street in the Hydrogen Age

Oct. 1, 1955
I remember when I was a youngster back in the early days of aviation, hydrogen was already an important commodity. They used it to fill big gas bags that floated through the air. Then they tacked a propulsion system to the gas bag and a flipper so they could control the direction. Then was the thing that later on became known as the zeppelin and wandered around at about sixty miles an hour. If they ran into a good strong wind, they could even fly backward.

Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas and it was a pretty hazardous thing. When the Hindenburg burned at Lakehurst back in 1937 it just about wound up the zeppelin age. Thirty-six persons were burned to death in that disaster. About the time hydrogen looked as though it were going to drift out of our vocabulary, but about sixteen years later it reappeared when at a little island out in the South Pacific a fifteen-megaton thermonuclear bomb exploded and the island virtually disappeared. Thirty-six persons died at Lakehurst. Now millions of people in any large metropolitan area—and perhaps hundreds of thousands more of them several hundred miles away—would die from the fire and fall-out of just one hydrogen bomb. The amount of hydrogen would be considerably less in amount but somewhat different in nature from what burned the Hindenburg.

Hydrogen-filled zeppelins laboriously worked their ways through the windy skies. Today’s hydrogen used in a warhead in an intercontinental ballistic missile would arrive from Moscow in about half an hour. The same hydrogen that was used to fill gas bags would make this missile move through the air at more than 10,000 miles an hour ground speed. That same hydrogen would make a warhead explode with a violent unprecedented in the history of the world as it arrived over the American target.

What does all that mean? What is the real significance to the man on the street of these great changes in man’s ability to harness the forces of nature

When I think of “Main Street” I think of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Anyone who has been there at that time knows what I mean. The first thing we need is information and education. We want to know what is going on so everybody fights for a place we they can see the clock and the crowds at the same time.

You have also a very interesting problem in community relations because Time Square on New Year’s Eve is a community. You even have to know something about civil defense—some joker may want to push you around and you have to push back. So that picture Times Square packed with people on New Year’s Eve and imagine what would happen if the Soviet H-bomb went off over their heads. That is what can happen some day to you or to me, whether we are in Times Square or on some other Main Street in our home towns unless we understand the challenge and the responsibility that faces us in this third year of the Hydrogen Age.

We all have the same sacrifices to make sure this calamity never happens. We have to dig down in our pockets for more money and more tax money for defense. We may have to learn to live with large standing military forces in this country. We have to put up with a lot of restrictions. We have to put up with the roar of jet interceptors overhead, interrupting our sleep and waking the kids up at night.

Preparing to avert war is really quite an inconvenience in many ways, but it is an inconvenience that is a whole lot better than dying in the rubble of your homes. The more we know about the problems involved, the easier it is for us to live with them.

That is the purpose of this Airpower Symposium, to tell us what it is all about and to give us a better understanding of the present, and a reasonable glimpse of the future and the major job ahead for all of us.