Do you know what the early airships used for the gasbags inside the outer envelopes? You will be very surprised, perhaps a little horrified.
Do you know how women were the key to the success of all airships made in Britain until the 1920s? Let’s hear it for the ladies of the Weinling family!
Image of women preparing goldbeaters skin for an airship (from the Royal Engineers’ Library). These may be the Weinlings but we cannot be sure.
From an East End Toyshop to the Airship Sheds
The first balloons contained hot air to make them rise from the ground but by the 1870s the early airships were experimenting with hydrogen, the lightest of the elements, as the lifting power. Hydrogen molecules are the tiniest and it was proving very difficult to find a material that could keep it in without leaking. Eventually the military found a natural solution. A Major Coxwell had seen some of the small balloons that the Weinlings had made for Mr Herron’s East End scientific toy shop, when he exhibited at one of the great industrial exhibitions at the Crystal Palace.
The people who made these small balloons were the Weinling family, using what was then a secret process, using “Goldbeaters’ Skin”, a very thin product used to interleave with the even thinner gold leaf which gilders used. The Weinlings had brought the secret of this ‘skin’ with them from Alsace a generation before they settled in London.
When the Army set up its Royal Balloon Factory and School at the Royal Engineers’ depot in Chatham, its first commanding officer, Major Templer obtained approval for the Weinlings to be employed by the Army. In 1883, they worked on the production of a successful new balloon, the Heron, the first of many balloons and airships built for the Army over the next thirty years. Goldbeater’s skin remained a secret held only by Britain and gave them a lead over their continental rivals that lasted until the advent of airships.
From Cow to Airship…
L to R: Cleaned ox intestines, partly prepared skin, skin envelopes in a Zeppelin
Goldbeaters’ skin is made from the lower intestines of the cow family. It is very lightweight, has great inherent strength and is almost impervious to hydrogen. It also has the unusual property that, when damp, it will stick together without needing to be sewn. Two overlapping pieces hold together almost like welded metal – as if they were a single piece, but without any of the damaging holes which sewing would create.
The process was a highly guarded secret for many years, which initially gave the British an advantage in airship design.
The intestines are cleaned and cut into sections, with a lot of salt being needed to clean the blood, fat and mucus. Then the membrane has to be separated from the wall of the intestine by peeling apart the ridge of fat which runs alongside. Each section of intestine is typically about 2 feet long and needs to be stretched and dried.
When the tension is released by cutting the membrane free of the drying rack, it shrinks slightly and becomes somewhat wrinkled. The finished piece looks and feels a little like slightly yellowish tracing paper but when damp will stick to another piece, such that any shape can be created by overlapping layers of the pieces.
Women working on goldbeaters skin pieces at the Short Brothers airship works in 1919
Treason and rationing
Huge numbers of these intestines were required and the British government arranged to buy them untreated but salted down in barrels from the cattle stockyards of the USA. About a quarter of a million intestines were needed for the envelopes for one Zeppelin and three times that amount for the even more massive HIndenburg airship.
The use of the goldbeaters skin was such a military secret that, when it became apparent that other countries knew the secret, Major Templer was charged with betraying military secrets in 1888. He was acquitted but the secret was evidently out.
In the First World War the German army could no longer buy intestines in bulk from the USA and had to choose between long-range bombing and sausage skins for the national dish – wurst. It chose the former and there was a ban on sausage-making in Germany and German-occupied territories. A national system for collecting the intestines was set up so that each butcher had to deliver the ones from the animals he killed. Agents exercised strict control in Austria, Poland and northern France, where it was forbidden to make sausages.
The Weinling Family
This orthodox jewish family, according to the census returns, lived in Islington and consisted of
Casamir Frederick Louis Aloys Weinling – head of family (1807-74). He had died by the time the family was contracted to the British Army in 1882.
Mrs Ann Weinling (1825-?)
Frederick Weinling (1847-?)
Mary A Weinling (1849-?)
Robert Weinling (1853-?)
Elizabeth Weinling (1855-?)
Matilda Weinling (1856-?)
Eugenie Weinling (1859-?)
Mrs.Weinling, her elder son Fred, and daughters Mary Anne, and Eugenie, were Balloon makers for the British Army at Chatham School of Military Aeronautics and made all of the balloons there. The School moved briefly to the Woolwich Arsenal before finding its permanent home as the Royal Balloon Factory at Farnborough. This soon became the Royal Aircraft Factory, during World War 1 and then was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough, which it remained until it closed in 2001.
One of the Misses Weinling (we don’t know which as she is only listed as Miss) became the Forewoman of women and balloon skin construction at Balloon Factory Farnborough in 1907. All the work done with goldbeaters skin airship balloons both in the UK and elsewhere was done by wome. Miss Weinling was the first and probably the only woman to reach a supervisory grade until the Second World War period. They worked in the lean-to building on the right below:
From; Early Aviation at Franborough, by P.B. Walker