Today marks the 172nd birthday of Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Or, as his full name goes, Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin. You can likely guess what we have him to thank for (and no, I’m not talking about anything related to Robert Plant and Jimmy Page).
While airships never quite gained in popularity as much as hoped, they have still inspired the imagination of writers and illustrators ever since their inception. Ferdinand popularized the zeppelin concept, and even lent his name to it, but his journey is quite an intriguing one.
It was during the American Civil war that Ferdinand first learned about airships, and through the help of the German aeronaut John Steiner and Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe (no, I am not making up any of these names; just proof that history can be as colorful as fiction!) that he began to create viable designs on a larger scale. Airships never quite reached their full capabilities during the Civil War, though much of the initial groundwork was laid in terms of balloon flight.
While Ferdinand was forced to resign from the military in his native Germany, for some reason the myriad possibilities of the airship captured his imagination, near the point of obsession. He worked tirelessly with engineers and designers to perfect the concept, believing that bigger, better airships could aid the military, among other things. Using hydrogen gas and his own trial and error, and collaborating with a variety of skilled individuals, especially those with backgrounds in aluminum alloy construction and other advances, Ferdinand eventually helped develop a design that truly took off. After numerous failures, he finally got the right backing (including from Daimler) and the company Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffart was born.
With the backing in hand, and the design refined by Theodor Kober, the first zeppelin–the LZ 1–took to the skies in 1900. Officially, it’s the first successful flight of a rigid airship. While airships have a bad reputation these days for their rather fiery demises, zeppelins had a very safe track record to start, flying some 37,250 passengers on more than 1600 flights without a crash, until about 1914.
Today, the airship is seeing something of a rebirth—at least in the minds of those with an eye for steampunk. These elegant, quiet, remarkable vessels challenge the way we think about air travel. My hope is that some day, especially with the need for alternative energies, we truly revive the airship age! In fact, Zeppelin as a company is still around, though the ships they make are more akin to those from the 1930s than the 1890s.
Here’s a look (inside and out) at some magnificent zeppelins to add a little lift to your day, in honor of Ferdinand von Zeppelin!
Below: The LZ 1
LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin – 1930, Brazil
In the dining area of the Graf Zeppelin, 1929; (CC by the German Federal Archive)
A compilation of clips featuring the Graf Zeppelin (1928 – 1939)