Imagine you are soaring above the earth in a giant airship…
This airship is filled with hydrogen gas that allows it to float in the sky. You’re inside the cabin of the airship with the other passengers who excitedly look at the surrounding clouds and land far below. You see mountains and villages and from above everything looks very small. Inside the airship, you have a bedroom, a dining room, and a common area where other passengers can gather, eat snacks and enjoy the voyage. Suddenly the airship starts to descend and everyone goes to the windows to watch as you move closer to the ground. Below is a crowd and news reporters waiting to interview you about the amazing flight in the airship. This airship came to be known as the Zeppelin after its creator Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin.
Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Ferdinand von Zeppelin was born in Germany in 1838. His family was very wealthy, so Ferdinand was able to attend a good university and eventually joined the military, where he served for many years. While serving in the military, Ferdinand traveled to America and was part of the American Civil War. There he met a balloonist, someone who flew hot air balloons and took him on a balloon flight. Ferdinand was amazed that using a balloon someone could soar through the sky. This flight got him thinking about other ways he could use these technologies to fly.
In 1874 Ferdinand came up with the idea to build a large, rigid-body airship with gas bags inside to make it float in the air. His airship would be different than a balloon because it had a body made out of metal that would support the gas bags. This would allow it to be much larger than a hot air balloon. Ferdinand retired from the army and put all of his time and effort into building his airship. He hired an engineer to design it. They ran into many problems, but Ferdinand kept trying because he was determined to complete the airship he dreamed of.
When they were finished designing it, the airship had a 420-foot metal body made of aluminum. The long tube-shaped body was covered with fabric, holding the bags of hydrogen gas inside. It was about the size of a football field and a half if you can imagine that. The airship had fins to stabilize and guide it and a propeller on the back to make it go. Underneath the ship were gondolas, the rooms where the captain and crew flew the ship. It also had cabins where the passengers could eat, sleep and hang out. The ship could carry up to 50 people. The airship was very expensive to build, but Ferdinand used most of his own money to pay for its construction.
The airship came to be known as the “Zeppelin” which was Ferdinand’s last name. In 1900 the zeppelin took its first successful flight over Lake Constance, Germany. It flew at a speed of 30 miles per hour and was named LZ1. From 1900 to 1914 they built two more zeppelins, LZ2 and LZ3. Over those years they flew 37,000 people on 1,600 flights without any accidents.
The Zeppelin and World War I
Sadly, amazing technology like the zeppelin, while useful and enjoyable at first, is often used for war. During World War I, the German army and navy used Ferdinand’s zeppelins to drop bombs on their enemies. But because zeppelins were so close to the ground they were easily damaged by shots from below. For this reason, the zeppelin was used in wars, but not very often.
After World War I, Zeppelin and his company continued to build new airships. One of the biggest ships was named Graf Zeppelin and was famous around the world for its transatlantic flights — which means it flew all the way across the huge Atlantic Ocean. It was larger than two football fields (776 feet)!
Around the World
In 1929 they decided to fly the Graf Zeppelin around the world! Wealthy Americans such as newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst helped pay for the flight. It started in Lakehurst, New Jersey before setting off. One of the famous passengers on the voyage was named Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay. Quite the name, right!? Grace was born in England and loved writing. She ended up becoming a journalist, which is someone who writes for the newspaper. She wrote about her travels and was invited to fly on the Graf Zepplin and write about it. Grace became the first woman to travel around the world by air. Her articles about the voyage were read by people all over the world. People marveled at what it would be like to fly in a giant airship like Grace. Later Grace went on to become a war correspondent, which means someone who goes to places where wars are being fought and writes about them in the newspaper. She went to far-off places like Ethiopia and China.
During the around-the-world flight, the airship Graf Zeppelin visited places like New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Germany and finally landed back in New Jersey. By 1937 Graf Zeppelin had made 590 flights, including 144 ocean crossings, and had flown more than 1 million miles!
The other famous zeppelin was called The Hindenburg and finished construction in 1936. The Hindenburg was 804 feet, almost 3 football fields long! It was powered by four huge engines, giving it a maximum speed of 84 miles per hour. Most of its voyages were between Germany and the United States.
In 1937 while the Hindenburg was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey its gas bags caught fire and the zeppelin crashed to the ground. It was caught on film and shown on newsreels around the world. One reason the zeppelin caught on fire so easily was the gas used in it, hydrogen, is highly flammable. Sadly, the Hindenburg’s crash led to the end of an era of giant airships.
Zeppelin’s in Popular Culture
For many years giant airships like the zeppelins were no longer made. They became a thing of fantasy and often you’ll see them in movies or read about them in books because they were such an amazing sight to behold. Many books imagine a world where people kept building zeppelins and they only became larger and more popular. If you’ve ever heard of steampunk, many steampunk books and movies include gigantic zeppelins as a common form of transportation.
More recently a new company called Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik built a modern version of the airship called NT airships or “New Technology” airships. These zeppelins are smaller, but built of safer materials and use an inert helium gas — so less likely to be damaged like the Hindenburg. The new zeppelins are used for things like tourism and for taking photos from the air. Often they have the brand name of a company on the side for advertising.
Do you like to write like Grace Drummond-Hay? She toured all over the world writing about new places and events. Her interest started small then grew as she practiced and practiced. What is something you would like to write about?
If you could design your own airship what would it look like? Would it use gases to float in the air, would it have wings, would it fly fast like a jet or slow, and be used for tourism like the zeppelin? It’s fun to imagine, that’s how big projects begin — with an idea and then taking action to make that idea a reality just like Ferdinand Von Zeppelin did with his gigantic airships!