The History of Lighter-Than-Air Craft

From hot-air balloons to the Hindenburg

The First Hot Air Balloon

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The history of lighter-than-air flight began with the first hot-air balloon built in 1783 by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in France. Immediately after the first flight - well, float might be more accurate - engineers and inventors worked toward perfecting a lighter-than-air craft.

Although inventors were able to make many advancements, the biggest challenge was to find a way to successfully steer the craft. Inventors conceived numerous ideas - some seemingly reasonable, like adding oars or sails, others a little far-fetched, like harnessing teams of vultures. The problem wasn't solved until 1886 when Gottlieb Daimler created a light-weight gasoline engine.

Thus, by the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the lighter-than-air crafts were still unsteerable. However, they quickly proved to be an invaluable military asset. In a tethered balloon several hundred feet in the air, a military scout could survey the battlefield or reconnoiter an enemy's position.

Contributions of Count Zeppelin

In 1863, 25-year-old Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was on a year's leave from the Wurttemberg (Germany) army to observe the American Civil War. On August 19, 1863, Count Zeppelin had his first lighter-than-air experience. Yet it wasn't until his forced retirement from the military in 1890 at age 52 that Count Zeppelin began to design and build his own lighter-than-air crafts.

While Daimler's 1886 lightweight gasoline engine had inspired many new inventors to attempt a sturdy lighter-than-air craft, Count Zeppelin's crafts were different because of their rigid structure. Count Zeppelin, partly using notes he had recorded in 1874 and partly implementing new design elements, created his first lighter-than-air craft, the Luftschiff Zeppelin One (LZ 1). The LZ 1 was 416-feet-long, made of a frame of aluminum (a lightweight metal not commercially produced until 1886), and powered by two 16-horsepower Daimler engines. In July 1900, the LZ 1 flew for 18 minutes but was forced to land because of some technical problems.

Watching the second attempt of the LZ 1 in October 1900 was an unimpressed Dr. Hugo Eckener who was covering the event for the newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung. Eckener soon met Count Zeppelin and over several years cultivated a lasting friendship. Little did Eckener know at this time that he would soon command the first lighter-than-air ship to fly around the world as well as become famous for popularizing airship travel.

Count Zeppelin made some technical changes to the design of LZ 1, implementing them in the construction of LZ 2 (first flown in 1905), which was soon followed by LZ 3 (1906), and then followed by LZ 4 (1908). The continued success of his lighter-than-air craft changed Count Zeppelin's image from the "foolish count" his contemporaries had called him in the 1890s to a man whose name became synonymous with lighter-than-air crafts.

Though Count Zeppelin had been inspired to create lighter-than-air crafts for military purposes, he was forced to concede the advantage of paying civilian passengers (World War I again changed the zeppelins into military machines). As early as 1909, Count Zeppelin founded the German Airship Transport Company (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktien-Gesellschaft -- DELAG). Between 1911 and 1914, DELAG carried 34,028 passengers. Considering that Count Zeppelin's first lighter-than-air craft had flown in 1900, air travel had quickly become popular.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The History of Lighter-Than-Air Craft." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). The History of Lighter-Than-Air Craft. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The History of Lighter-Than-Air Craft." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).