Ferdinand von Zeppelin

The fund-raiser and driving visionary behind building giant rigid balloon airships, Zeppelin built a craft that flew three years before the Wright brothers’ airplane. Problems of safety and maintenance made Zeppelin’s airships unsuccessful, however, though his legacy remains in blimps and novelty aircraft.

mies on the general staff. He was forced into retirement in 1891 as a brigadier general. He decided to build a practical balloon airship to fulfill his vision of the future, and to safeguard Germany from being overtaken technologically by the French. Zeppelin was not an engineer, however, and was totally reliant upon those he hired.

Born: July 8, 1838; Konstanz, Baden (now in Germany) Died:March 8, 1917; Charlottenburg, Germany Also known as:Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich von

Zeppelin (full name); Count Zeppelin Primary fields:Aeronautics and aerospace technology;military technology and weaponry Primary invention:Rigid airship (dirigible)

Early Life

Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich von Zeppelin (ZEHPuh-lihn) was born near the Swiss border on Lake Constance (Bodensee in German). His father was councilor to the duke of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and his mother was from a family of wealthy textile manufacturers. Given an excellent private education and having an adventurous disposition, Zeppelin decided on a military career. He graduated from Ludwigsburg Military Academy and joined the Württemberg army in 1857. In 1863, he was given permission by Abraham Lincoln to observe the Civil War from Union lines, where he witnessed tethered observation balloons in army service. A short time later, he went on an adventure seeking the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. While there, he took his first balloon flight.

Zeppelin fought in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, which established Prussian military dominance over German-speaking Europe. In 1869, he married the Livonian baroness Isabella von Wolff and had a daughter—their only child. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Zeppelin served in the cavalry and became famous for a nasty skirmish at Schirlenhof Inn, in which he was the only German not killed or captured. Later in the war, Prussia besieged Paris, and the French used balloons to communicate with the outside world. Zeppelin read of this in 1874 and was struck by the potential of steerable balloons for military and commercial use. In 1885, he was appointed military attaché for Württemberg in Berlin— the wrong man for the job. Zeppelin was not happy with Prussian domination of the German army and made ene-

Life’s Work

By the late nineteenth century, airships (Luftschiffe) as symbols of the coming age fired people’s imaginations. European nations of the day were competing for military and economic dominance. Balloon aviators became romantic and patriotic figures, their achievements synonymous with national pride and the arms race. Three balloon types were experimented with: nonrigid, semirigid, and rigid. Rigid types had a girder framework that formed the aerodynamics necessary for steering.

The French successfully flew the nonrigid airship La France in 1884 and captured world attention. In 1887, Zeppelin wrote the king of Württemberg about the need to match this technology. By 1891, when the count was forced into retirement, he believed it was his patriotic duty to safeguard Germany by developing the airship. He hired engineers to draw up blueprints. In time, his most famous assistant would be Dr.Hugo Eckener.

In 1894, Zeppelin’s requests for government development funds were rejected for poor design and planning, but he nevertheless patented his blueprints. In 1898, he sought capital to build a dirigible himself. He erected a huge shed floating on pontoons on Lake Constance. His prototype LZ1 was 39 feet in diameter and 420 feet long, with two passenger gondolas, each with two propellers run by gasoline engines. A stability weight dangled beneath, and there were top and bottom rear rudders. On the evening of July 2, 1900, when winds were mild, the LZ1 flew for twenty minutes. An engine crankshaft bent the airframe, but the ship landed safely. The LZ1 flew twice more before Zeppelin ran out of money and closed operations, in 1901. In 1902, he found no backers, although many were sympathetic. They saw Zeppelin’s airships as contraptions and Zeppelin as an old hero with a harebrained idea, a bittersweet Don Quixote.

After Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic flights in December, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, public interest in airships increased. Zeppelin ran a lottery and mortgaged his wife’s estate to fund the LZ2, which flew in early 1906. Compared to the LZ1, the LZ2 had more powerful engines and sliding midsection weights to control trim. Its engines stalled, however, and when it landed, winds blew it to pieces. That same year, Kaiser Wilhelm II founded the Society for the Study of Powered Flight to close the airship gap with France. Zeppelin raised funds to build the LZ3, which flew more than thirty miles per hour in October, 1906. It had tail and rudder improvements copied from the French, making it stable enough to discard midsection weights. Zeppelin’s daughter and the crown prince were passengers in the airship. The airship once stayed aloft for eight hours. Following the success of the LZ3, the German government allocated funds and ran a lottery to build the LZ4. Meanwhile, the French airship Patrie carried Premier

Georges Clemenceau over the Eiffel Tower in July, 1907. German unease increased over French airship technology.

The LZ4 was 146 feet long, had more powerful engines and larger rudders than its predecessor, and had a fuel-storage cabin halfway between two gondolas. In July, 1908, it flew for twelve hours, crossing into Switzerland and back. The king and queen of Württemberg flew in it over Lake Constance. In August, 1908, the airship force-landed in the German village of Echterdingen, where a crowd gathered around it and spontaneously sang the national anthem. Later, a storm destroyed it by dragging it into trees. Germans sent Zeppelin money to build the LZ5, and there were now government funds as well. Zeppelin became a national hero for ignoring public opinion and Prussian indifference to build his invention for Germany. In 1909, the LZ5 flew to Berlin, where it was greeted by the German emperor.

That same year, Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in an airplane, but Germans loved “zeppelins” too much to be mindful of Blériot’s feat. During 19101911, four zeppelins were destroyed on the ground by winds. The German general staff realized that zeppelins were vulnerable but nevertheless ordered seventeen of them in 1912 because of rumors of a French airship fleet. By World War I, in 1914, Germany had twelve airships and twenty-six airfields, and the Zeppelin works had a rival: The Schütte-Lanz Company had begun building dirigibles for government and civilian use in 1909, although all rigid balloons of the day were commonly referred to as zeppelins.

Airship bombing raids of Great Britain and France commenced in 1915. At first, there was shock and fear in the populace, but in time people got used to them. By 1916, the Allies were shooting zeppelins down with incendiary bullets and antiaircraft fire. In response, zeppelins flew above the clouds to be out of range. This necessitated lowering an observer in a cable car (Spähkorb) below cloud level to telephone when a zeppelin was over its target. By 1917, zeppelins had a range of almost 7,500 miles and had antifreeze coolants and oxygen masks for high altitudes. However, they were regularly shot down or crashed before they reached their objectives. The German military flew 111 Luftschiffe raids, dropped 311,500 pounds of bombs, killed more than 500 people, but had a loss rate of about 70 percent from combat and accidents. During the war, Zeppelin advocated all-out aerial bombing of Allied cities in order to bring victory. He died of pneumonia in Berlin on March 8, 1917, at age seventynine.


Military zeppelins never fulfilled their promise. They were equivalent to the megacannon “Big Bertha”—a terror weapon inconsequential to victory. Zeppelin raids made populations angry rather than frightened. After the initial fear of them subsided, city dwellers actually sat on park benches to watch for Zeppelins caught in Allied searchlights. In his own country, Zeppelin became a national icon—an old cavalry hero from 1870 with the spirit of a young aeronaut. He was photogenic in his visored cap and white handlebar moustache, smiling for the camera or looking determinedly off into the distance. He appeared on postcards and stamps, was quoted in newspapers, was drawn in political cartoons, and decorated by the emperor. Average Germans were so zeppelin-mad for a time that they overlooked disastrous smashups and crashes that claimed lives and cost money. When world war came in 1914, the dirigible’s effectiveness was less than the danger and manpower required to fly and maintain it. Preoccupied as Germans were with great airships, it was perhaps no accident that the best early German warplanes were designed by a non-German: Antony Fokker from the Netherlands.

After the war, Germany’s dirigibles were taken as war reparations. Interest in commercial flights rekindled in the 1920’s. By far the most successful zeppelin was the Graf Zeppelin—built and piloted by Hugo Eckener and named after his former boss. It flew commercially across the Atlantic with passengers, and in 1929, around the world. There followed a brief golden age of zeppelin transatlantic flights. The United States built the Shenandoah (crashed in Ohio in 1925, killing fourteen), the Akron (crashed into the Atlantic in 1933, killing seventythree), and the Macon (crashed into the Pacific in 1935, killing two). The British effort ended with the crash of the R101 (crashed in France in 1930, killing forty-eight). The spectacular filmed explosion of the Hindenburg (killing thirty-six) in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 was the death blow for zeppelins.

—Jim Pauff

Further Reading

Cross, Wilbur. Zeppelins of World War I. New York:

Paragon House, 1991. Written more in the vein of a dramatic narrative than a history, the book nevertheless contains information not found in other texts. It details the use of zeppelins through the 1930’s. Illustrations with a glossary of dirigible terms. De Syon, Guillaume. Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Thoroughly researched and documented, and written in a clear, engaging style, the best of recent books on the subject. The author includes a detailed list of sources. Illustrations. Stephenson, Charles. Zeppelins: German Airships, 1900-40. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004. Small paperback on zeppelins, profusely illustrated with photographs and paintings, with a bibliography for further reading.


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