A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship named after the German inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the 20th century.
Zeppelins are also known as blimps, airships, and dirigibles. These vessels used heated air to become airborne. Over time, hydrogen and helium replaced the heated air.
Zeppelins are different than hot-air balloons because balloons float with the wind, while zeppelins have engines that can steer the airship. Zeppelins have transported people – militaries have used them in wartime to observe and bomb enemy positions – and companies have also utilized them to advertise products.
Zeppelin history is full of failure and disappointment but also of victory and triumph. Victory against the rules of nature and victory of a man as a thinking animal. Learn more about rigid airships history.
The first Zeppelin airship was designed by Ferdinand, Graf von Zeppelin, a retired German army officer, and made its initial flight from a floating hangar on Lake Constance, near Friedrichshafen, Germany, on July 2, 1900. Beneath the 128-metre (420-foot) craft a keel-like structure connected two external cars, each of which contained a 16-horsepower engine geared to two propellers. A sliding weight secured to the keel afforded vertical control by raising or lowering the nose, while rudders were provided for horizontal control. The craft attained speeds approaching 32 km (20 miles) per hour.
In 1910, the first commercial zeppelin, the “Deutschland,” was ready for passenger service. Between 1910 and 1914, over 34,000 passengers were transported safely via zeppelin.
During World War I the Germans achieved moderate success in long-range bombing operations with the zeppelin-type rigid airship, which could attain higher altitudes than the airplanes then available. On two occasions during 1917, German zeppelins made flights of almost 100 hours’ duration. Such performances led many people to believe that large airships would play a prominent part in aviation development. A number of zeppelins were distributed to the Allied countries as a part of postwar reparations by Germany.
The center of zeppelin production in the United States was Akron, Ohio. In 1916, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company purchased land near Akron, Ohio to build a plant that could produce zeppelin aircraft. In 1917, the main Goodyear Company created a subsidiary known as the Goodyear Zeppelin Company to manufacture the zeppelins. That same year, the firm received a contract from the federal government to manufacture nine zeppelins for the United States military during World War I. Unfortunately for the company, its manufacturing facilities were not complete in 1917, so Goodyear completed the first airships inside of a large amusement park building in Chicago, Illinois. The military used these airships to bomb and to spy upon enemy positions.
Of many subsequent zeppelins, the two most famous were the Graf Zeppelin, completed in September 1928, and the giant Hindenburg, first flown in 1936. The Graf Zeppelin inaugurated transatlantic flight service, and by the time of its decommissioning in 1937 had made 590 flights, including 144 ocean crossings, and had flown more than 1.6 million km (1 million miles). In 1929 the craft covered about 34,600 km (21,500 miles) in a world flight that was completed in an elapsed time of approximately 21 days. The Hindenburg, 245 metres (804 feet) long, was powered by four 1,100-horsepower diesel engines, giving it a maximum speed of 135 km (84 miles) per hour. In 1936 this airship carried a total of 1,002 passengers on 10 scheduled round trips between Germany and the United States. On May 6, 1937, while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the hydrogen-inflated craft burst into flames and was completely destroyed, with a loss of 36 lives.
Since the 1990s Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, a daughter enterprise of the Zeppelin conglomerate that built the original German Zeppelins, has been developing Zeppelin “New Technology” (NT) airships. These vessels are semi-rigids based partly on internal pressure, partly on a frame.
The Airship Ventures company operated zeppelin passenger travel to California from October 2008 to November 2012 with one of these Zeppelin NT airships.
In May 2011, Goodyear announced that they would replace their fleet of blimps with Zeppelin NTs, resurrecting their partnership that ended over 70 years ago. Goodyear placed an order for three Zeppelin NTs, which then entered service between 2014 and 2018.
Modern zeppelins are held aloft by the inert gas helium, eliminating the danger of combustion illustrated by the Hindenburg. It has been proposed that modern zeppelins could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Zeppelin NTs are often used for sightseeing trips – for example, D-LZZF (c/n 03) was used for Edelweiss’s birthday celebration performing flights over Switzerland in an Edelweiss livery, and it is now used, weather permitting, on flights over Munich.
Zeppelins have been an inspiration to music, cinematography and literature. In 1934, the calypsonian Attila the Hun recorded “Graf Zeppelin”, commemorating the airship’s visit to Trinidad.
Zeppelins are often featured in alternate history and parallel universe fiction. They feature prominently in the popular fantasy novels of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Book of Dust series by Philip Pullman.
In the American science fiction series, Fringe, Zeppelins are a notable historical idiosyncrasy that helps differentiate the series’ two parallel universes, also used in Doctor Who in the episodes “The Rise of the
Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel” when the TARDIS crashes in an alternate reality where Britain is a ‘People’s Republic’ and Pete Tyler, Rose Tyler’s father, is alive and is a wealthy inventor. They are also seen in the alternate reality 1939 plot line in the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and have an iconic association with the steampunk subcultural movement in broader terms. In 1989, Japanese animator Miyazaki released Kiki’s Delivery Service, which features a Zeppelin as a plot element. A Zeppelin was used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Jones and his father try to escape from Germany in a Zeppelin.