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IT’S A SIGNIFICANT understatement to call Norman Bel Geddes an industrial designer: His designs were artistic, innovative, eccentric, flamboyant, occasionally bordering on the wacky, hardly just “industrial.” Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits on his most ambitious design, the Bel Geddes Airliner Number 4.
The Man. Norman Melancton Geddes was born in Adrian, Michigan, not far north of the Ohio border, and grew up in New Philadelphia, Ohio, about 85 miles south of Cleveland. His family was reasonably well off, his father a stockbroker.
When Norman married Helen Belle Schneider in 1916, they combined their names to Bel Geddes; actress Barbara Bel Geddes and writer/researcher Joan Ulanov (later, the wife of jazz critic Barry Ulanov), their daughters.
The Designer. Bel Geddes’ career in theater set design began at the Los Angeles Little Theater in the 1916–1917 season. He followed up as a scene designer for the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. His set designs were also part of Broadway productions and Hollywood films.
Bel Geddes is perhaps best known for his designs of commercial products, in which he helped popularize streamlining of everything from cocktail sets to automobiles to skyscrapers.
He designed the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair.
Airliner Versus Ocean Liner. Bel Geddes’ most ambitious design, albeit never realized, was the Airliner Number 4, an aircraft replacement for the transatlantic ocean liner. But what an ambitious replacement!
Transatlantic travel by ocean liner in the mid-1930s took four days or more. In 1936, the speedy new RMS Queen Mary won the Blue Riband with crossings of 3 days, 20 hours, and 42 minutes in her eastbound passage and 3 days, 21 hours, and 48 minutes in her westbound trip.
The Bel Geddes Airliner Number 4 was designed 1929-1932 to fly non-stop from Chicago, Illinois, to Plymouth, England, in 42 hours. An airborne refueling over Newfoundland was to be part of the flight.
Ocean Liner Versus Airliner. The 12-deck Queen Mary carried 2139 passengers and a crew of 1101. The nine-decked Bel Geddes was to carry 606 passengers with a crew of 155. In 1930s dollars, a Queen Mary fare varied from $663 to $93, depending on First, Tourist, or Third Class. A Bel Geddes ticket was to cost $300.
According to Wikipedia, cost of the Bel Geddes airliner was estimated at $9 million, its thrice-weekly Atlantic crossings bringing paybak in three years. By contrast, an ocean liner cost $60 million.
The Hindenburg Choice. There was also a $400 transatlantic passage sporadically scheduled on the Zeppelin Hindenburg. This airship’s eastbound flight from the North American East Coast took less than 43 hours; its westbound flight, 65 hours. Its accommodations were clearly inferior to those of an ocean liner.
True, the Hindenburg had a Blüthner baby grand piano. But the Bel Geddes was to have three private dining rooms; two public dining rooms, the larger one converting to a dance floor for orchestra and 100 couples; four tennis courts; six shuffle board courts; six quoits pitches; a gym with dressing rooms and showers; a men’s solarium with 16 couches and a masseur; a women’s solarium with 16 couches and a masseuse; a barber shop; a hairdresser’s salon; a library; a writing room; a children’s playroom; a doctor’s office with waiting room; two bars; one gift shop; and, incorporated into the wing’s windowed leading edges, a grand promenade.
The aircraft’s design included 24 suites with bath, 81 double staterooms, 18 single staterooms, and 179 sleeping rooms. It had full climate control, including air conditioning.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll discuss other technicalities of the Bel Geddes Number 4 as well as my fun doing its GMax rendering. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021
Thank you Dennis. While I have been aware of many of Bel Geddes’ grand designs, this one comes out of the blue. Even my aircraft library misses it. What a fabulous imagination— and work ethic!!
Agreed. This one is delightful in its optimistic wackiness.