Friday Fun: Zeppelin Timetables

Okay, maybe ‘fun’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind, but bear with me. This is actually an interesting problem.

Imagine yourself on an ocean liner in the early 20th century, cruising across the Atlantic at 20 knots. It takes you about five or six days to cross five time zones: not a tremendous daily difference, between one and two minutes per hour, depending on latitude (stopping, for the sake of this article, at roughly Winnipeg). At about midnight, the stewards set the ship’s clocks so that the next clock noon corresponds with the next solar noon. You wake up, set your watch, and Bob’s your uncle. You need not mitigate the clock difference in any special way.

Now imagine you’re traveling across the United States by plane. The trip is over quickly, and you have no reason to adjust your watch. The solar time changes by about thirty minutes per hour. The time in the air is essentially dead time—it’s as though you teleported to your destination by slow (by teleportation standards), tiring, and stressful means.

Zeppelins fall somewhere in between: too slow to ignore the changing solar time like a plane, and too fast to leave it to simple watch adjustments. The time changes at between five and eight minutes per hour. Whereas an eight-hour night on an ocean liner might see your watch off by 15 minutes—a reasonable error, if you have a bad watch—an eight-hour night on a zeppelin liner throws you off by a full hour. So, zeppelin timetables must explicitly account for the change in time.

Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol primarily takes place on a zeppelin liner traveling from Panama City to Yokohama, with a Honolulu layover. The first leg, about 5500 miles, sees four time zones crossed. The second, nearer 5000 miles, crosses five (and the International Date Line). Below is the timetable.

The zep departs Panama on the afternoon of the first day, reaches Honolulu in three and a half days, stays in Hawaii eighteen hours to refuel and resupply, then departs for Yokohama, where it arrives on the evening of the sixth day, for a total of five and a half days of travel time.

Notice the Ship’s Time column, and how it slides to the left, matching Panama time at first, then Hawaii time, then wraps around to Yokohama time (albeit behind a day, in the reverse of Phileas Fogg’s scenario). Recall, too, that over the course of a normal, 16-hour waking day heading west, your clock reads an hour or two fast. The traditional westbound trip, therefore, features long, lazy evenings, ordinarily filled to the brim with socializing, and frequently capped with a view of the prolonged sunset. Heading east, the evenings are instead foreshortened: daytime pursuits become the order of the day, and passengers tend to retire early.

The full timetable, though of interest to me as an author, is of little interest to the average passenger. Some better-connected passengers, however, may have appointments to keep via the zep’s shortwave sets. From the perspective of the zep’s owners, it is good business to make the passengers feel like globetrotters. Clocks showing the time in ports around the world go some way toward that goal.

Zeppelins, more so than ocean liners, are at the mercy of the weather. Strong headwinds can slow them down, and there are very few instances in which a zeppelin captain would willingly navigate through a storm. Nor is it as simple to avoid weather as it is for airliners today: airplanes can operate above most storm systems, while zeppelins, limited to less than 10,000 feet by the physics of displacement and their reserve buoyancy, cannot. Detours are frequently arduous.

So, if ever you’ve wondered how much effort I put into largely irrelevant background detail, here you go. Our own history never featured large-scale zeppelin travel, and I was unable to find a similar schedule from a real zeppelin. I suspect they did something similar to the ocean liners of the day, but in a world where zeppelin travel is more routine—nearly as routine as train travel—the more strictly regimented approach feels more likely to me.

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