A pioneering builder of rigid airships.
Trained as a civil engineer, Ferdinand von Zeppelin received his military commission in 1858. He was in the United States throughout much of the American Civil War (1861-1865), when he worked as an observer of hot-air balloons. After forty-four years in the military, Zeppelin retired in 1890 and began designing and building rigid airframe airships with an engineer named Theodor Kober.
On July 2, 1900, Zeppelin and Kober flew the first rigid airship, the LZ-1, cautiously coaxing it out of a hangar floating on a lake. The flight, which lasted eighteen minutes, was considered a success despite difficulties with directional controls. For the next dozen years, Zeppelin worked tirelessly on the design and testing of a series of airships. In 1908, airship LZ-8 remained in the air for twenty-four hours as a demonstration of airworthiness.
So intensely had airships captured the popular imagination, that the German emperor, William II, publicly supported Zeppelin’s work. Zeppelin backed his early work with his own private fortune, and his name eventually became a generic term for rigid airships. A campaign was begun to raise money through popular contributions, which became the capital for a new company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Zeppelin’s company eventually formulated a strong lightweight metal, Duraluminum, which became the basis for many new developments in all-metal airplane frames.
In November, 1909, Zeppelin and his partner founded the world’s first airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktien-Gesellschaft, or Delag, which provided short flights from airfields throughout Germany, largely for members of high society, thousands of whom paid to ride in the new airships. Zeppelins were soon under contract for regular mail delivery throughout Germany.
Although William II had initially opposed the bombing of civilian areas, during World War I more than one hundred zeppelins were eventually deployed across the English Channel to bomb areas around London. Over the course of the war, the German airship raids caused more than seven million dollars in damage and killed more than five hundred people.
At the beginning of the war, rigid airships’ key advantage over airplanes was that they could climb to much higher altitudes. As airplane designs improved during the war, airplanes were able to gain greater altitude, and the British began using incendiary bullets to damage the hydrogen bags placed inside the zeppelins’ airframes. This development was countered by lightweight zeppelins, called height climbers, which were able to reach altitudes of 20,000 feet. The height climbers represented special perils for their crews, however, because parachutes were banned as excess weight.
When Zeppelin died of pneumonia in March, 1917, he had not yet achieved his goal of transatlantic flight, which would later be achieved by both the Graf Zeppelin, christened on his birthday in 1928, and the ill-fated Hindenburg, the largest lighter-than-air ship ever built.
Cross, Wilbur. Zeppelins of World War I. New York: Paragon House, 1991. A thorough account of the German airship raids on London during World War I, with individual chapters on specific airships. Much of the information comes from the papers and unpublished autobiography of an airship commander, Hans von Schiller. The book also includes a sizeable glossary of airship terminology. Goldsmith, Margaret L. Zeppelin: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1931. An English-language biography of Zeppelin written during the heyday of rigid airships, covering his life in five- to ten-year increments and climaxing with the use of zeppelins during World War I. Nitske, W. Robert. The Zeppelin Story. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1977. Lavishly illustrated and detailed account of Zeppelin’s ships, with a listing of dimensions and technical information for all of Zeppelin’s airships.
Ferdinand von Zeppelin designed the first rigid airship, or dirigible, the LZ-1, which had its first flight on July 2, 1900. Nine years later, he and a partner founded the world’s first airline, providing dirigible passenger and airmail service throughout Germany.