On August 31, 1895, German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin patented his navigable balloon. Zeppelin pioneered development of the rigid airship at the beginning of the 20th century. His notions were first formulated in 1874 and developed in detail in 1893. They were patented in Germany in 1895 and in the United States in 1899. After the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the word zeppelin came to be commonly used to refer to all rigid airships. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910 by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), the world’s first airline in revenue service. By mid-1914, DELAG had carried over 10,000 fare-paying passengers on over 1,500 flights. During World War I the German military made extensive use of Zeppelins as bombers and scouts, killing over 500 people in bombing raids in Britain.
Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin was born on July 8, 1838, the scion of a noble family. Zepelin, the family’s eponymous hometown, is a small community outside the town of Bützow in Mecklenburg. Ferdinand was the son of Württemberg Minister and Hofmarschall Friedrich Jerôme Wilhelm Karl Graf von Zeppelin (1807–1886) and his wife Amélie Françoise Pauline (born Macaire d’Hogguer) (1816–1852). Ferdinand spent his childhood with his sister and brother at their Girsberg manor near Constance, where he was educated by private tutors and lived there until his death. On August 7, 1869, Ferdinand married Isabella Freiin von Wolff in Berlin. She was from the house of Alt-Schwanenburg (the present day town of Gulbene in Latvia, then part of Livonia). They had a daughter, Helene (Hella) von Zeppelin (1879–1967) who in 1909 married Alexander Graf von Brandenstein-Zeppelin (1881–1949).
In 1853, Count Zeppelin left to attend the polytechnic at Stuttgart, and in 1855 he became a cadet of the military school at Ludwigsburg and then started his career as an army officer in the army of Württemberg. By 1858, Zeppelin had been promoted to Lieutenant, and that year he was given leave to study science, engineering and chemistry at Tübingen. The Prussians mobilizing for the Austro-Sardinian War interrupted this study in 1859 when he was called up to the Ingenieurkorps (Prussian engineering corps) at Ulm.
In 1863, Zeppelin took leave to act as an official observer for the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War in Virginia. During the Peninsular Campaign, he visited the balloon camp of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe shortly after Lowe’s services were terminated by the Army. Later, Zeppelin traveled to the Upper Midwest with a party that probably included two Russians. Led by Native American (probably Ojibwe) guides, they canoed and portaged from the western end of Lake Superior up the St. Louis River and across to Crow Wing, Minnesota on the Upper Mississippi River.
On reaching St. Paul (via stagecoach and hired carriage), Zeppelin encountered German-born former Army balloonist John Steiner who was offering tethered flights. He made his first aerial ascent with him from a site near the International Hotel in downtown St. Paul on August 19, 1863. Many years later, he attributed the beginning of his thinking about dirigible lighter-than-air craft to this experience.
In 1865, Zeppelin was appointed adjutant of the King of Württemberg and as general staff officer participated in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. He was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) of the Order of Distinguished Service of Württemberg. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines, during which he narrowly avoided capture, made him famous among Germans.
From 1882 until 1885, Zeppelin was commander of the 19th Uhlans in Ulm, and was then appointed to be the envoy of Württemberg in Berlin. In 1890 he gave up this post to return to army service, being given command of a Prussian cavalry brigade. His handling of this at the 1890 autumn maneuvers was severely criticized and he was forced to retire from the Army, albeit with the rank of Generalleutnant.
Zeppelin’s ideas for large airships were first expressed in a diary entry dated March 25, 1874. Inspired by a recent lecture given by Heinrich von Stephan on the subject of “World Postal Services and Air Travel”, he outlined the basic principle of his later craft: a large rigidly-framed outer envelope containing a number of separate gasbags. In 1887, the success of Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs’ airship La France prompted him to send a letter to the King of Württemberg about the military necessity for dirigibles and the lack of German development in this field.
After his resignation from the army in 1891 at age 52, Zeppelin devoted his full attention to airships. He hired the engineer Theodor Gross to make tests of possible materials and to assess available engines for both fuel efficiency and power-to-weight ratio. He also had air propellers tested and strove to obtain higher purity hydrogen gas from suppliers. Zeppelin was so confident of his concept that in June 1891 he wrote to the King of Württemberg’s secretary, announcing he was to start building, and shortly after requested a review from the Prussian Army’s Chief of General Staff. The next day Zeppelin almost gave up as he realized he had underestimated air resistance, but resumed work on hearing that Rudolf Hans Bartsch von Sigsfeld made light but powerful engines, information soon shown to be overoptimistic. Whereupon Zeppelin urged his supporter Max von Duttenhofer to press Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft for more efficient engines so as not to fall behind the French. Duttenhofer wrote to Gross threatening to withdraw support, and Zeppelin shortly afterwards sacked Gross, citing Gross’ lack of support and writing that he was “an obstacle in my path”.
Despite these setbacks Zeppelin’s organization had refined his idea: a rigid aluminum framework covered in a fabric envelope; separate multiple internal gas cells, each free to expand and contract thus obviating the need for ballonets; modular frame allowing addition of sections and gas cells; controls, engines and gondola rigidly attached. After publishing the idea in March 1892 he hired the engineer Theodor Kober who started work testing and further refining the design. Zeppelin submitted Kober’s 1893 detailed designs to the Prussian Airship Service, whose committee reviewed it in 1894. In June 1895, this committee recommended minimum funds be granted, but withdrew this offer and rejected the design in July.
One month later, on August 31, 1895, Zeppelin received a patent for the design with Theodor Kober producing the technical drawings. It was described as an “airship-train” (Lenkbarer Luftfahrzug mit mehreren hintereinanderen angeordneten Tragkörpern — “steerable airship-train with several carrier structures arranged one behind another”). The patent describes an airship consisting of three rigid sections flexibly connected. The front section, intended to contain the crew and engines, was 385 feet (117.35 meters) long with a gas capacity of 336,000 cubic feet (9514 cu m): the middle section was 52 feet, 6 inches (16 m) long with an intended useful load of 1,321 pounds (599 kilograms) and the rear section 131 feet (39.93 m) long with an intended load of 4,400 pounds (1,996 kg).
Count Zeppelin’s attempts to secure government funding for his project proved unsuccessful, but a lecture given to the Association of German Engineers (VDI) gained their support. In early 1896, Zeppelin’s lecture on steerable airship designs given to the VDI so impressed them that the union launched a public appeal for financial support for him. This led to a first contact with Carl Berg who supplied aluminum alloys which Zeppelin had tested, and by May 1898 they, together with Philipp Holzmann, Daimler, Max von Eyth, Carl von Linde, and Friedrich Voith, had formed the joint stock company Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffart (Society for the Promotion of Airship Flight). Zeppelin invested 441,000 Marks, over half the total capital.
Berg’s involvement with the project would later be the cause of allegations that Zeppelin had used the patent and designs of David Schwarz’s airship of 1897. Berg had signed a contract with Schwartz under the terms of which he undertook not to supply aluminum to any other airship manufacturer. He later made a payment to Schwartz’s widow as compensation for dissolving this arrangement. Claims that Zeppelin had been influenced by Schwartz were denied by Eckener in 1938 and also rejected by later historians. Zeppelin’s design was “radically different” in both its scale and its framework from that of Schwarz.
The principal feature of Zeppelin’s design was a fabric-covered rigid metal framework made up from transverse rings and longitudinal girders containing a number of individual gasbags. The advantage of this design was that the aircraft could be much larger than non-rigid airships, which relied on a slight overpressure within the single pressure envelope to maintain their shape. The framework of most Zeppelins was made of duralumin (a combination of aluminum and copper as well as two or three other metals — its exact content was kept a secret for years). Early Zeppelins used rubberized cotton for the gasbags, but most later craft used goldbeater’s skin, made from the intestines of cattle.
Responsibility for the detail design was given to Kober, whose place was later taken by Ludwig Dürr, and construction of the first airship began in 1899 in a floating assembly-hall or hangar in the Bay of Manzell near Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance (the Bodensee). The intention behind the floating hall was to facilitate the difficult task of bringing the airship out of the hall, as it could easily be aligned with the wind. The LZ 1 (LZ for Luftschiff Zeppelin, or “Zeppelin Airship”) was 420 feet (128 m) long with a hydrogen capacity of 400,000 cubic feet (11,000 m³), was driven by two 15 horsepower (11 kW) Daimler engines each driving a pair of propellers mounted either side of the envelope via bevel gears and a driveshaft, and was controlled in pitch by moving a weight between its two nacelles.
The first flight took place on July 2, 1900, over Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen in southern Germany. The airship rose from the ground and remained in the air for 20 minutes. Damaged during landing, it was repaired and modified and proved its potential in two subsequent flights made on October 17 and 24, 1900, bettering the 13.4 miles per hour (6 m/s or 21.6 km/h) velocity attained by the French airship La France. Despite this performance, the shareholders declined to invest more money, and so the company was liquidated, with Count von Zeppelin purchasing the ship and equipment. The Count wished to continue experimenting, but he eventually dismantled the ship in 1901.
Zeppelin still enjoyed the support of the King of Württemberg, who authorized a state lottery which raised 124,000 marks. A contribution of 50,000 marks was received from Prussia, and Zeppelin raised the remainder of the necessary money by mortgaging his wife’s estates. Still supported by Daimler and Carl Berg, construction of his second airship, the LZ 2, was started in April 1905. It was completed by November 30, when it was first taken out of its hangar, but a ground-handling mishap caused the bows to be pulled into the water, damaging the forward control surfaces. Repairs were completed by January 17, 1906, when LZ 2 made its only flight. Too much ballast was jettisoned on takeoff, causing the airship to rise to an altitude of 1,401 feet (427 m). Here a stiff breeze was encountered, and although the airship was at first able to overcome this, the failure of the forward engine due to cooling problems followed by the failure of the other due to a broken clutch-spring left the airship at the mercy of the wind. It was brought down near Kisslegg in the Allgäu mountains, with some damage caused by the stern’s striking some trees during mooring, but was more severely damaged by high winds the following night, and had to be dismantled.
Incorporating all the usable parts of LZ 2, construction began on its successor LZ 3 in May 1906. This became the first truly successful Zeppelin. It was the same size and configuration as LZ 2, but had a greater gas capacity. Finished by the end of the year, it made two successful flights at a speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h), and in 1907 attained a speed of 36 miles per hour (58 km/h). The success of LZ 3 produced a change in the official attitude to his work, and the Reichstag voted that he should be awarded 500,000 marks to continue his work. However the purchase by the Government of an airship was made conditional on the successful completion of a 24‑hour endurance flight. Knowing that this was beyond the capabilities of LZ 3, work was started on a larger airship, the LZ 4. This first flew on June 20, 1908.
On July 1, LZ 4 was flown over Switzerland to Zürich and then back to Lake Constance, covering 240 miles (386 km) and reaching an altitude of 2,600 feet (795 m). An attempt to complete the 24-hour trial flight ended when LZ 4 had to make a landing at Echterdingen near Stuttgart because of mechanical problems. During the stop, a storm tore the airship away from its moorings on the afternoon of August 5. It crashed into a tree, caught fire, and quickly burnt out. No one was seriously injured.
This accident would have finished Zeppelin’s experiments, but his flights had generated huge public interest and a sense of national pride regarding his work. Spontaneous donations from the public began pouring in, eventually totaling over six million marks. This enabled the Count to found the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH (Airship Construction Zeppelin Ltd.) and the Zeppelin Foundation (Zeppelin Stiftung).
Following the destruction of LZ 4, LZ 3, which had been damaged when the floating hangar broke free of its mooring during a storm, was repaired: at the same time it was lengthened by 8 m. It was re-inflated on October 21, 1908, and after a series of short test flights a flight lasting 5 hours 55 minutes took place on October 27 with the Kaiser’s brother, Admiral Prince Heinrich, on board. On November 7, with Crown Prince William as a passenger, it flew 50 miles (80 km) to Donaueschingen, where the Kaiser was then staying. In spite of poor weather conditions, the flight succeeded: two days later LZ 3 was officially accepted by the Government and on November 10 Zeppelin was rewarded with an official visit to Friedrichshafen by the Kaiser, during which a short demonstration flight over Lake Constance was made and Zeppelin awarded the Order of the Black Eagle.
Before World War I began in 1914, the Zeppelin company manufactured 21 more airships. The Imperial German Army bought LZ 3 and LZ 5 (a sister-ship to LZ 4 which was completed in May 1909) and designated them Z 1 and Z II respectively. Zeppelin’s relationship with the military authorities continued to be poor and deteriorated considerably due to his criticism of the Army following the loss of Z II, which was carried away from its moorings and wrecked in a gale on April 25, 1910.
However, the business director of Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin, Alfred Colsman, came up with a scheme to capitalize on the public enthusiasm for Zeppelin’s airships by establishing a passenger-carrying business. In 1909, Count Zeppelin founded the world’s first airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German Airship Travel Corporation), generally known as DELAG to promote his airships, initially using LZ 6, which he had hoped to sell to the German Army. The airships did not provide a scheduled service between cities, but generally operated pleasure cruises, carrying twenty passengers. The airships were given names in addition to their production numbers. LZ 6 first flew on August 25, 1909, and was accidentally destroyed in Baden-Oos on September 14, 1910, by a fire in its hangar.
The second DELAG airship, LZ 7 Deutschland, made its maiden voyage on June 19, 1910. On June 28, it set off on a voyage to publicize Zeppelins, carrying 19 journalists as passengers. A combination of adverse weather and engine failure brought it down at Mount Limberg near Bad Iburg in Lower Saxony, its hull getting stuck in trees. All passengers and crew were unhurt, except for one crew member who broke his leg when he jumped from the craft. It was replaced by LZ 8 Deutschland II which also had a short career, first flying on March 30, 1911, and becoming damaged beyond repair when caught by a strong cross-wind when being walked out of its shed on May 16. The company’s fortunes changed with the next ship, LZ 10 Schwaben, which first flew on June 26, 1911 and carried 1,553 passengers in 218 flights before catching fire after a gust tore it from its mooring near Düsseldorf. Other DELAG ships included LZ 11 Viktoria Luise (1912), LZ 13 Hansa (1912) and LZ 17 and LZ 17 Sachsen (1913). By the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, 1,588 flights had carried 10,197 fare-paying passengers.
Z I flew for the Imperial German Army until 1913, when it was decommissioned and replaced by LZ 15, designated ersatz Z I. First flown on January 16, 1913, it was wrecked on March 19 of the same year. In April 1913, its newly built sister-ship LZ 15 (Z IV) accidentally intruded into French airspace owing to a navigational error caused by high winds and poor visibility. The commander judged it proper to land the airship to demonstrate that the incursion was accidental, and brought the ship down on the military parade-ground at Lunéville. The airship remained on the ground until the following day, permitting a detailed examination by French airship experts.
On April 24, 1912, the Imperial German Navy ordered its first Zeppelin — an enlarged version of the airships operated by DELAG — which received the naval designation L 1 and entered Navy service in October 1912. On January 18, 1913, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, obtained the agreement of Kaiser Wilhelm II to a five-year program of expansion of German naval-airship strength, involving the building of two airship bases and constructing a fleet of ten airships. The first airship of the program. L 2, was ordered on January 30. L 1 was lost on September 9 near Heligoland when caught in a storm while taking part in an exercise with the German fleet. 14 crew members drowned, the first fatalities in a Zeppelin accident. Less than six weeks later, on October 17, LZ 18 (L 2) caught fire during its acceptance trials, killing the entire crew. These accidents deprived the Navy of most of its experienced personnel: the head of the Admiralty Air Department was killed in the L 1 and his successor died in the L 2. The Navy was left with three partially trained crews. The next Navy zeppelin, the M class L 3 did not enter service until May 1914; in the meantime, Sachsen was hired from DELAG as a training ship.
By the outbreak of war in August 1914, Zeppelin had started constructing the first M class airships, which had a length of 518 feet (158 m), with a volume of 794,500 cubic feet (22,500 m³) and a useful load of 20,100 pounds (9,100 kg). Their three Maybach C-X engines produced a 630 horsepower (470 kw) each, and they could reach speeds of up to 52 miles per hour (84 km/h).
Early zeppelin models had a comparatively small externally mounted gondola for passengers and crew which was attached to the bottom of the frame. This space was never heated (fire outside of the kitchen was considered too risky) so passengers during trips across the North Atlantic or Siberia were forced to bundle themselves in blankets and furs to keep warm and were often miserable with the cold. They were propelled by several engines, mounted in gondolas or engine cars, which were attached to the outside of the structural framework. Some of these could provide reverse thrust for maneuvering while mooring. The first Zeppelins had long cylindrical hulls with tapered ends and complex multi-plane fins. During World War I, following the lead of their rivals Schütte-Lanz Luftschiffbau, the design changed to the more familiar streamlined shape with cruciform tail surfaces, as used by almost all later airships.
Count Zeppelin died on March 8, 1917, more than a year before the end of World War I, therefore he did not witness either the provisional shutdown of the Zeppelin project due to the Treaty of Versailles or the second resurgence of the Zeppelins under his successor Hugo Eckener. The unfinished World War II German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, and two rigid airships, the world-circling LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II, twin to the Hindenburg, were named after him.
The name of the British rock group Led Zeppelin derives from his airship as well. His granddaughter Countess Eva von Zeppelin once threatened to sue them for illegal use of their family name while they were performing in Copenhagen.
In 1975, Zeppelin was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.
On April 13, 1978, Germany issued a set of four semi-postal stamps portraying early aircraft, printed by lithography and perforated 14 (Scott #B549-B552). One of these stamps was featured on ASAD last month in an article about Louis Bleriot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909 (Scott #B551). The 40-pfennig + 20-pfennig denomination depicts Zeppelin’s LZ 1, the first truly successful experimental rigid airship. It was first flown from a floating hangar on Lake Constance, near Friedrichshafen in southern Germany on July 2, 1900.
Zeppelin’s company, the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschifffahrt, first constructed a large floating shed to contain the airship. This arrangement was decided on because Zeppelin believed that landing the ship over water would be safer and also because the floating shed, moored only at one end, would turn so that it was always facing into the wind.
LZ 1 was constructed using a cylindrical framework with 16 wire-braced polygonal transverse frames and 24 longitudinal members covered with smooth surfaced cotton cloth. Inside was a row of 17 gas cells made from rubberized cotton. The airship was steered by forward and aft rudders and propulsion was provided by two 14.2 horsepower (10.6 kW) Daimler NL-1 internal-combustion engines, each driving two propellers mounted on the envelope. Pitch control was by use of a 220-pound (100 kg) weight suspended beneath the hull which could be winched forward or aft to control its attitude. Passengers and crew were carried in two 20-foot (6.2 m) long aluminum gondolas suspended forward and aft.
Construction of the airship began on June 17, 1898, when the first sections of the framework were delivered from Berg’s factory and was completed by January 27, 1900. The first flight was well covered by the press and observed by locals with great excitement for this was the first time they had seen the ship which had been concealed in the floating shed during construction. The occasion of the first flight was the first time she had been taken out of the floating hangar. Graf Zeppelin never needed to do any “taxi” tests with the airship, as it was designed to lift off vertically, so it did not need to be removed from the hanger till she was flight ready. He had used a motor boat fitted with a propeller to test propeller design and efficiency, rather than doing such testing with the airship.
The first flight was planned for June 30, 1900. Inflation of the gasbags took place on that date and preparations were underway to fill the ballonets with hydrogen, but the weather turned bad and the maiden voyage was postponed. Weather also prevented the first flight the next day, July 1, as well though the great airship was towed out of its hangar in anticipation of a launch. Weather on July 2 was also uncooperative till late in the afternoon. Finally, at 6:15 on the evening of July 2, 1900, LZ 1 was declared ready, and at 7:30 p.m. the raft on which the ship was moored, was pulled from the shed. When the raft was clear of the shed, the mooring lines were slackened and the ship rose 30 meters above the raft, with Hauptmann Hans Bartsch von Sigsfeld of the Prussian Airship Battalion at the controls. Graf Von Zeppelin gave the command to “Cast off”, and at 8:03 p.m. the airship was permitted to float freely.
Right away there was a problem, as the handlers on the raft at the stern reacted too quickly, and released the cables first, and as the ship rose to about 150 feet, a line connecting the weight became entangled with a line from one of the propeller drives. Quick action was required to level the ship. Then as the engines were run to propel the ship forward, they had great difficulty keeping the ship level, and right away the crank broke controlling the position of the laufgewicht (sliding weight). Now, ballast, releasing gas, and reversing the propellers were the only means of controlling attitude.
The first flight continued to the northwest. At 8:18 p.m., the command was given to land and at 8:20:18 the ship landed on the water near Immenstadt. During this first flight, LZ 1 had carried five people, reached an altitude of 1,350 feet (410 m) and flew a distance of 3.7 miles (6.0 km) in nearly 18 minutes, but by then the moveable weight had jammed and one of the engines had failed: the wind then forced the premature landing. The motorboat Württemberg met the airship and placed her in tow. Unfortunately, the ship got caught in some posts sticking up from the lakebed and she was damaged. At 1:00 the next morning, she was once again safely back in the floating shed.
The flight revealed serious structural deficiencies in the framework, and an attempt to remedy this was made by incorporating the walkway between the gondolas into a rigid keel structure. The narrow gangway slung underneath the hull was built up into a deep triangular girder — stiffened by diagonal struts, as well as a change to the mechanism to contain and slide the weight — no longer suspending the mass meters below the gangway. The weight of the laufgewicht was increased to 330 pounds (150 kg). The two rudders at the stern, on either side of the hull were moved below the hull, one in front of the other, and the bow rudder was retained on the lower portion of the hull while the upper rudder at the bow was eliminated. An elevator was added, just aft of the bow rudder.
The ship was once again ready for flight on September 24, 1900, but on September 25 a suspension cable broke permitting the center part of the hull to crash to the raft, causing serious damage to the ship’s frame. Repairs took until October 14. Weather prevented operations until October 17. At 4:45 that afternoon, she made her second flight. Despite difficulties with control, she stayed airborne for 1 hour, 20 minutes, traveling 6.8 miles to near Meersburg and back to Manzell. The landing was cut short due to a rapid dip of the nose during landing operations whereupon the nose struck the water. Damage was slight, and the ship settled on the water. On October 24, LZ 1 had her third and final flight which began at 5:02 p.m. She made three successful accents and descents, and demonstrated much more positive control. At 5:25, the airship was landed and by 6:00 was successfully towed back to the hangar and stored.
During the October flights, LZ 1 showed her potential by beating the speed record then held by the electric-powered French Army non-rigid airship, La France of 3.7 miles per hour (6 km/h or 3.2 knots), but this did not convince the possible investors. Because funding was exhausted, Graf von Zeppelin had to dismantle the airship, sell the scrap and tools and liquidate the company. LZ 1 was scrapped and sometime later in 1901 dismantled. The floating hangar sat empty in an unknown state. It would take Zeppelin nearly five years to find the funding to continue with his airship development.