Charles Lindbergh & Airlines in the 1920s Video

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  • 0:02 Introduction
  • 0:42 Charles Lindbergh
  • 1:29 First Airlines
  • 2:42 End of Airships
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Believe it or not, the air used to fill birthday balloons was once a strategic resource on par with oil or uranium. This lesson starts with Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and ends with the establishment of long-range airlines.


In the years since the Wright Brothers' first successful flight in 1903, the role of the airplane had changed dramatically. By the end of World War I, two different technologies had emerged. Planes had reached speeds previously unheard of - well over 100 miles per hour - but were still relatively small. Airships, on the other hand, were massive behemoths that, while not as quick as an airplane, could move much larger payloads over longer distances. In each case, the opportunity for commercial air service wasn't ignored - the ability to move people, mail, and cargo in hours as opposed to days was simply too tempting to pass up.

Charles Lindbergh

The most obvious hurdle to be surpassed in expanding air services was in the distance that these craft could travel. After all, there wasn't much room onboard for fuel. Airships gained an early advantage here, as they did not require an expenditure of energy to achieve lift, but only to provide propulsion. However, all of that was changed in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in a plane. In a little more than a day, he flew from New York to France. In doing so, he captured the world's imagination - after all, he was the first person in history to wake up in the Americas and go to sleep in Europe. More tellingly, he proved that transatlantic flight by plane was a real possibility.

First Airlines

Even before Lindbergh, the first airlines started operation soon after the end of World War I. However, they really took off after Lindbergh's flight. That said, the patterns of these first airlines were largely unlike the flight of Lindbergh. Rather than have long legs of flight, these first airlines would jump from one airport to another. Instead of flying across the Atlantic, a flight from Paris may stop in Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland before arriving in New York. Likewise, transcontinental flights in the United States would jump from Boston to New York to Pittsburgh to Chicago and onward until San Francisco. Given all these stops, it's not surprising that these first airlines often carried the mail as often as they carried passengers. In fact, many mail carriers would evolve into passenger lines.

In Europe, colonial powers saw a real advantage in this sort of flight. Suddenly the vastness of their colonial empires was in easy reach. The British established Imperial Airlines, reaching from South Africa to Egypt then back east to Australia. Suddenly, important mail, shipments, and passengers could quickly reach distant parts of the Empire.

End of Airships

For many, however, the airplanes offered a bumpy ride that had little promise of the sort of luxury they expected as an ocean liner replacement. The airships, on the other hand, were a different story. However, airships had one major developmental problem. All varieties depended on the use of a lighter-than-air gas.

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