Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible

After a century of experimentation with lighter-than-air craft in different nations, Ferdinand von Zeppelin devised the first prototype of the modern rigid airships, which would play roles in World War I and in international air traffic until 1938.

Summary of Event

The early history of rigid airships was directed largely by attempts to extend the military potential of lighter-than-air crafts by propulsion and directed flight. After the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon launch in France in 1783, engineers—especially in France—began to focus on how the direction of balloon flight could be influenced by machines. Late nineteenth century ideas ranged from rowing through the air with silk-covered oars or movable wings to using rotating fans, airscrews, or propellers powered by steam engines Steam engines;and flight[Flight] or electric motors. The internal combustion engine Internal combustion engines;and dirigibles[Dirigibles] , introduced at the end of the nineteenth century and promising higher speeds and more power, was another major step toward the realization of dirigible, or directable, balloons. These craft, however, were not yet rigid. Inventions;dirigibles
Zeppelin, Ferdinand von
[kw]Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible (July 2, 1900)
[kw]Completes the First Flying Dirigible, Zeppelin (July 2, 1900)
[kw]First Flying Dirigible, Zeppelin Completes the (July 2, 1900)
[kw]Flying Dirigible, Zeppelin Completes the First (July 2, 1900)
[kw]Dirigible, Zeppelin Completes the First Flying (July 2, 1900)
Zeppelin, Ferdinand von
[g]Germany;July 2, 1900: Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible[6520]
[c]Space and aviation;July 2, 1900: Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible[6520]
[c]Transportation;July 2, 1900: Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible[6520]
[c]Engineering;July 2, 1900: Zeppelin Completes the First Flying Dirigible[6520]
Kober, Theodor

Rigidity had the advantage of permitting the building of larger airships with wider ranges. Around 1890, the Austro-Hungarian War Ministry turned down a design for a rigid airship devised by the Dalmatian engineer David Schwarz. However, the Russian government accepted the design in 1892. During trials in St. Petersburg St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia];dirigible trials in 1893, flaws that became apparent during inflation kept the airship on the ground. Schwarz then took his plans to a third sponsor and succeeded. In 1894, he persuaded a Prussian aeronautical commission to support his research. The second test flight in 1897 in Berlin, however, was troubled by gas leaks in the metal hull and ended in a crash.

Whereas Schwarz’s airship consisted of an entirely rigid aluminum cylinder, the German inventor Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s design was based on a rigid frame wrapped in a flexible fabric. Zeppelin was familiar with balloons, having been in two wars in which they were used: the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the Franco-Prussian War Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];balloons (1870-1871).

The first thoughts about airships that Zeppelin recorded in his diary were dated March 25, 1874; they were inspired by an article he had read about international post and aviation. Zeppelin soon lost interest in the idea of finding civil uses for airships and came to favor the notion that dirigible balloons might become important in modern warfare. He submitted a request and asked for assistance to build an airship for the German government. In particular, he pointed to the apparent superiority of French military airships. Nationalism was the driving force behind Zeppelin’s persistence in his endeavor, and it overshadowed the enormous technical and financial obstacles that he faced.

In order to procure money for his project in 1893, Zeppelin struggled to convince the German military and engineering experts of the utility of his invention. Although a governmental committee judged his work worth minimal funding, the army was skeptical, arguing that the ratio of cost to prospective utility of Zeppelin’s machines was unfavorable. The committee finally chose Schwarz’s design, but in 1896 the indefatigable Zeppelin won the support of the powerful Union of German Engineers, which helped him to form a stock company, the Association for the Promotion of Airship Flights, two years later. Zeppelin invested almost half of the association’s 800,000 marks in capital funds. In 1899, he began construction in Manzell at Lake Constance, and on July 2, 1900, his airship was finished and ready for its first trial.

Together with engineer Theodor Kober Kober, Theodor , Zeppelin had worked on the design of the ship since May, 1892, shortly after his retirement from the army. By 1894, he and Kober had established the basic design, which, though some of its details were later modified, was to remain the recognized form of the Zeppelin. An improved version was patented in December, 1897.

In the final prototype—the LZ 1—the engineers aimed especially to reduce the weight of the airship as much as possible. They used a light internal Internal combustion engines;and dirigibles[Dirigibles] combustion motor and devised a latticed container made of aluminum—a lightweight metal that had recently become commercially available because of a new electrolytic process.

Zeppelin’s airship was 420 feet (128 meters) long and 38.4 feet (11.7 meters) in maximum diameter. It consisted of a huge zinc-aluminum alloy framework with twenty-four longitudinal girders running from nose to tail and drawn together at each end. Sixteen traverse frame rings held the body together. Over the framework, the engineers had stretched an envelope of smooth cotton cloth to reduce friction as the ship moved through the air and to protect the gas bags inside from direct exposure to the rays of the Sun.

Undated photograph of a dirigible landing in the presence of Count Zeppelin and the Crown Prince of Germany.

(Library of Congress)

Seventeen separate gas cells made of rubberized Rubber;and dirigibles[Dirigibles] cloth were placed inside the framework, all equipped with safety valves. Several were provided with maneuvering valves. Together they contained 4,294,793 cubic feet (121,615 cubic meters) of hydrogen gas, which would lift 24,450 pounds (11,090 kilograms). A bridgelike construction was fixed to the side of the body, attached to which were two motor gondolas, each with a sixteen-horsepower gasoline motor, driving four propellers on the sides.

The dirigible’s initial trials were unsuccessful. The two main questions—whether the construction was stable enough and whether its speed was sufficient for practical requirements—could not be answered definitively because small details, such as the breaking of a crankshaft and the jamming of a lateral rudder, prevented normal flying. The first flight lasted no more than eighteen minutes; the ship attained a maximum speed of 8.5 miles per hour (13.7 kilometers per hour). During its three test flights, the airship was in the air for a total of only two hours, and its speed never exceeded 17.5 miles per hour (28.2 kilometers per hour). Lack of money forced Zeppelin to abandon his projects for some years, and his company was liquidated. The LZ 1 was wrecked in the spring of 1901.

Trials with a second airship, which had been financed by industry, the military, and Zeppelin (with the additional help of a lottery), took place in November, 1905, and January, 1906. Both trials were unsuccessful and ended in the destruction of the ship during a storm. By 1906, however, the German government was convinced of the military utility of the airship, although it demanded that in order to back the airship financially, future airships would have to be able to fly nonstop for at least twenty-four hours. The third Zeppelin failed to fulfill these conditions in the autumn of 1907.

The breakthrough came with LZ 4. Not only did it prove itself to the military but it also attracted enormous public attention. In the summer of 1908, it flew for more than twenty-four hours and attained the considerable speed of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour). When, after its forced landing at the end of this flight, the ship was caught in a storm and exploded, spontaneous donations from throughout Germany amounted to more than 6 million marks. The “flying pencil” (a derogatory expression for the rigid airship coined by the German engineer of nonrigid airships, August von Parseval) had become a German national affair. Its advanced technology guaranteed Germany a lasting dominance in the field of airship design.


Rigid airship development and operation remained chiefly in German hands, particularly in those of the Zeppelin company and its operating associates. Between 1900 and 1938, 139 of the 161 rigid airships that were made were built in Germany, and 119 of these were of the Zeppelin type. The remaining airships were of an experimental type, the construction of which was abandoned at the end of World War I.

More than 80 percent of airships were built for military purposes. Whereas the British Royal Navy Royal Navy;airships had only four rigid airships at the end of World War I, the German army and navy bought their first airships in 1909 and used more than one hundred improved and enlarged Zeppelins for long-range reconnaissance and bombing during the war. Starting in May, 1915, bombing attacks were flown on the eastern front on Warsaw, Bucharest, and Salonika and on the western front predominantly on England, especially London. The airship attacks had a considerable psychological effect on the British population, although the physical damage they caused did not have a major impact on the war. Furthermore, the British antiaircraft defense, which used artillery and airplanes, improved rapidly. By 1916, Germany’s loss of airships had increased to such an extent that the army abandoned them. The navy, however, continued to employ them until the end of the war, primarily for reconnaissance over water and also for bombing.

Airships were first used for civilian passenger traffic in 1910. By 1914, the Delag (German Aeronautic Stock Company) had acquired seven passenger airships to make recreational circular flights from German cities. Insufficient engine power, ignorance of meteorology, and difficulties in maneuvering the airship on the ground still posed serious problems for regular use. After World War I, the remaining Zeppelins became part of reparation payments, and airship construction for German use was forbidden until 1925.

As airship service over short distances was economically infeasible, partly because of competition from airplanes, long-distance flights became the new specialty for airships during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Linking the empire by air was the aim of the British airship program between 1924 and 1930. A British airship had succeeded in the first transatlantic flight in 1919. The intended commercial flights, however, especially toward the Far East, never materialized, as a result of the crash of the R-101 in 1930, in which most of the leading British aeronauts were killed.

The American rigid airship program of 1928 to 1935 intended to provide long-range naval reconnaissance and led to the construction of the Akron (1931) and the Macon (1933). However, the U.S. government stopped the program in 1935 after both airships crashed. Commercial overseas travel by airship was entirely a German concern and as such was exploited for nationalist and, later, fascist propaganda. The world tour of the Graf Zeppelin
Graf Zeppelin in 1929 was an international success, and exploratory and promotional flights followed. Air connections between Germany and South America started in 1932 on a regular basis, and German airships adorned with Nazi swastikas flew to Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1936. The explosion Explosives;dirigibles of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg
Hindenburg in 1937, however, meant the end of the rigid airship. As the U.S. secretary of the interior vetoed the sale of nonflammable helium, Helium fearing its use for military purposes by the Nazi regime, the German government had to stop transatlantic flights for safety reasons. In 1940, the last two remaining rigid airships were wrecked.

Further Reading

  • Beaubois, Henry. Airships. Translated and adapted by Michael Kelly and Angela Kelly. New York: Two Continents Publishing Group, 1976. Comprehensive collection of pictures and drawings of all the airships built through the mid-1970’s, starting with the first balloons and ending with the radar-equipped Goodyear ZPG-3W of the U.S. Navy and blimps used for publicity.
  • Brooks, Peter W. Historic Airships. London: H. Evelyn, 1973. Dense but clear account of the history of rigid airships. Brooks also provides useful tables and reliable statistics concerning the technical aspects and operation of airships.
  • Kirschner, Edwin J. The Zeppelin in the Atomic Age. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957. This book appeared shortly before the end of the U.S. military airship program. It discusses the possibility of commercial transport using atomic-powered airships, with a strong emphasis on economic considerations.
  • Meyer, Henry Cord. “France Perceives the Zeppelins, 1924-1937.” South Atlantic Quarterly 78 (1979): 107-121. Description of the French perception of Zeppelins as a symbol of new German political and technological strength after World War I. Recapitulating the struggles concerning permission for German airships to fly over France, it reflects on the political implications of modern technology.
  • Payne, Lee. Lighter than Air: An Illustrated History of the Airship. Rev. ed. New York: Orion Books, 1991. Broad history of all varieties of lighter-than-air craft.
  • Robinson, Douglas H. Giants in the Sky. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973. Accurate and insightful survey of the history of airships by the leading authority on rigid airships.
  • Robinson, Douglas H., and Charles L. Keller.“Up Ship!” A History of the U.S. Navy’s Rigid Airships, 1919-1935. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1982. Based on documents of the National Archives. Presents a detailed and precise history of the U.S. Navy’s rigid airships but does not avoid romanticism in describing military weaponry.
  • Syon, Guillaume de. Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Solid and well-written study of Zeppelin’s dirigibles, with special attention to their place in German culture and history.
  • Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters. New York: Dover, 1972. Popular history of the early dirigibles.

Maiden Voyage of the Clermont

Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic

Clipper Ship Era Begins

Hamburg-Amerika Shipping Line Begins

Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

George Cayley; Gottlieb Daimler. Inventions;dirigibles
Zeppelin, Ferdinand von