We discover how to build a big airship ... with sausage skins!
When Channel 4's Dr Hugh Hunt was researching the history of the Zeppelin Airship bombing raids on London in WW1 he discovered they used Beef Gold Beater Skins as the membrane for their huge Hydrogen filled Gas bags. With our German heritage and knowledge of natural casings Hugh enlisted Weschenfelders to help solve just how they used this specialized casing to make such vast Airships.
The Casing they used was actually what is known as the 'Gold Beater Skin' which gets its name from being used in the old days as an envelope between which Gold was 'bashed' into incredibly thin layers to be used as Gold Vellum in illuminated manuscripts. After a little research we contacted a friend in Germany whose company 'Streckfuss Naturdarme' specializes in supplying Natural Casings throughout Bavaria and Southern Germany. Amazingly Jorg had a barrel of South American Gold Beater Skins tucked away in the corner of his warehouse ! After airfreighting them across it was only a week later that we could start experimenting with them in the selecting room of our factory. .
The Gold Beater Skin is the membrane which is wrapped around the Cows' appendix , which is about a meter long. We would normally only use the casing itself which is known as the Beef or Ox-Bung and which is used in Scotland for Haggis and on the continent for products like Mortadello. The Gold Beater Skin is a flat membrane about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and was a lovely snow white colour. It was also very strong and really difficult to tear or rip which is presumably why it was so valued. Still we found it hard to fathom how on earth they used these small membranes to make such huge airships !?
Rather than constructing a mini-balloon we knocked together some wooden frames and started laying the skins over the wood and stretching them across and overlapping each other to cover the space. At first we left them to dry in the factory but they were still damp and limp the next morning. Thinking the humidity must be too high we put them into the boiler room and within two hours they were transformed ! We found they had dried as taut as a drum skin and where we had overlapped the skins they had joined together almost as if they had been glued or bonded. Several pieces of skin were now a small sheet and if you multiplied this simple technique a thousand fold you could start to imagine how the Germans created the vast Gas Bags inside the Zeppelins. Over 200,000 Gold Beater Skins were needed for each Zeppelin Airship !
With the Gold Beater Skins in short supply they also used normal Hog Casings which they split to create thin strips of membrane a few inches in diameter which they used to layer between the Gold Beater Skins like papier mache !. For a time even Bratwurst production was restricted so every last inch of gut could be used in the war effort !!
One of the mysteries surrounding the history of the Zeppelin bombing raids on London in 1915 was why they were so difficult for the British to shoot down. One of the reasons is that when the British fighter planes fired into them the Gold Beater skins did not rip apart and the bullets simply created what amounted to small pinpricks in the vast structure. The Channel 4 team discovered an intriguing story as to how the British rushed to develop the first incendary bullet to try and set fire to the Hydrogen gases and when this didn't work they developed a technique of alternating these bullets with a different type of round that would create a bigger hole that allowed Oxygen to enter. With Oxygen mixing with the Hydrogen the incendary bullets then could ignite the gases and envelope the Zeppelin in flames !
It was great to be involved with this project and we were swept along with the enthusiasm of the Windfall Film production crew, Johnny, Catherine, and of course presenter Dr Hugh Hunt !
We hope you enjoy the programme. The Channel 4 documentary was shown on Aug 26th at 8.00pm. If you missed the programme you can watch it on the Channel 4 Catch Up service at,