Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich, Graf von Zeppelin

views updated

Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich, Graf von Zeppelin


German Military Officer and Inventor

Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin was responsible for the development of the dirigible, a lighter-than-air vehicle known as the zeppelin. These airships were used extensively in the early 1900s until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin was born in Konstanz, Baden, Germany, in 1838. Even at 12 years of age, Zeppelin exhibited a keen interest in technology. At the age of 17, he attended the military academy in Ludwigsburg and was also educated at the University of Tübingen, receiving a degree in civil engineering.

He entered the Prussian Army in 1858, and served in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War from 1870-1871. In 1863 he went to the United States as a military observer with the Union Army with the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the military use of hot air balloons. Zeppelin became convinced that airships could be used practically in the military. He took his first balloon ride in 1863, in St. Paul, Minnesota, increasing his interest in aeronautics. Publishing a comprehensive plan for a civil air transportation system using large, lighter-than-air ships in 1887, he tried to convince the German military of the potential value of the airships. The Germans were not interested initially, and in 1890 Ferdinand von Zeppelin retired from military service to pursue his interest in airships full-time.

Zeppelin's first concept was of an "air train," with wagons that could be connected for the transport of goods. Struggling with his plans for 10 years, he patented his design and began construction of the airship in 1899. The initial concept was gradually transformed into the zeppelin airship of 1900. First taking flight on July 2, 1900, from a floating hangar on Lake Constance, near Friedrichshafen, Germany, the LZ-1 carried five persons 3.75 mi (6 km) at an altitude of 1,300 ft (396 m).

The first zeppelin had a rigid frame made of metal, and the entire cylindrical framework of the ship was covered in a smooth-surfaced cotton cloth. Gas bubbles filled with hydrogen gas gave the craft its lift, and it was powered by two 15 hp Daimler internal combustion engines. Forward and aft rudders controlled the steering and the passengers were carried in aluminum gondolas. The first flight experienced some problems but inspired enough interest in the public that Zeppelin was able to continue his work through public donations. The German government began to take notice, and when a zeppelin craft achieved sustained flight over a 24-hour period in 1906, the Germans commissioned an entire fleet. Before Graf von Zeppelin's death, 130 of the ships were built with nearly 100 of them being used in the First World War.

Zeppelin airships could reach speeds of 81 mi (136 km) an hour and could reach heights of 13,943 ft (4,250 m). The height achieved by the craft was much greater than that of any airplane at the time, and was used in air raids over Britain and France. They were armed with five machine guns and could carry 4,410 lbs (2,000 kg) of bombs. The airships were large and slow and proved to be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, but they were still used to transport supplies.

Zeppelins were also used in commercial passenger service, and were the first airships to be used for that purpose in 1910. The Graf Zeppelin, completed in 1928, and the Hindenburg of 1936 were the two most famous Zeppelins. Used in transatlantic flight service, the Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights before being decommissioned in 1937. In 1929, the airship completed a world trip, covering 21,550 mi (34,600 km) in 21 days. The Hindenburg was 804 ft (245 m) long, and achieved a maximum speed of 84 mi (135 km) per hour. While landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, the hydrogen-filled airship burst into flames. Thirty-six people died in the crash and soon after the airships ceased to be used.

While airships like the zeppelins are no longer used today, they had a great impact on the early 1900s and indeed the rest of the century. Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin's airships inspired the imaginations of other aeronautic inventors and proved the potential value of air passenger service, and blimps filled with hot air are used at sporting events today. These developments helped to fuel the fire of aviation research in the early part of the century.


About this article

Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich, Graf von Zeppelin

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article