In the sky over Germany’s Lake Constance, Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, a retired Prussian army officer, successfully demonstrates the world’s first rigid airship. The 420-foot, cigar-shaped craft was lifted by hydrogen gas and powered by a 16-horsepower engine.
Zeppelin had first become interested in lighter-than-air travel in 1863, when as a military observer in the American Civil War he had made several ascents in Union observation balloons. In 1891, he retired from the Prussian army to devote himself to the building of motor-driven dirigibles, and in 1900 he successfully tested his first airship. Although a French inventor had built a power-driven airship several decades before, the Zeppelin’s rigid dirigible, with its framework of metal girders, was by far the largest airship ever constructed. Like the French airship, Zeppelin’s airship was lifted by highly flammable hydrogen gas and thus vulnerable to explosion.
During World War I, several “Zeppelins,” as all rigid airships became popularly known, were used by the Germans in bombing missions over Britain. After the war, commercial passenger service increased, and one of the most famous rigid airships, the Graf Zeppelin, traveled around the world in 1929. In the 1930s, the Graf Zeppelin also pioneered the first transatlantic air service, leading to the construction of the largest dirigible ever built: the Hindenburg. On May 6, 1937, at the end of its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, the Hindenburg burst into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew. Lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favor after the Hindenberg disaster, and no existing rigid airship survived World War II.