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The first zeppelin was brought down on British soil in September 1916

The first zeppelin was brought down on British soil in September 1916. These members of Britain's Royal Flying Corps are examining the machinery on the airship.

The first ascent of the LZ-1 July 2, 1900

The first ascent of the LZ-1 July 2, 1900.

The remains of a raider, one of the zeppelins brought down on English soil, 1918

The remains of a raider, one of the zeppelins brought down on English soil, 1918.

The Graf Zeppelin flying over the U.S. Capitol, 1920. Photo taken by Theodor Horydczak.

The Graf Zeppelin flying over the U.S. Capitol. Photo taken by Theodor Horydczak.

A German postcard showing the LZ-129

A German postcard showing the LZ-129.

The Los Angeles

The Los Angeles.

The charred remains of the Hindenburg under guard

The charred remains of the Hindenburg under guard.

The Hindenburg flies over New York City just before it explodes

The Hindenburg flies over New York City just before it explodes.

Explosion of the Hindenburg, May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, New Jersey

Explosion of the Hindenburg, May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, New Jersey

The Graf Zeppelin LZ-127

The Graf Zeppelin LZ-127.

The Zeppelin

The German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, owned by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, was the world's most successful builder of rigid airships. Zeppelin flew the world's first untethered rigid airship, the LZ-1, on July 2, 1900, near Lake Constance in Germany, carrying five passengers. The cloth-covered dirigible, which was the prototype of many subsequent models, had an aluminum structure, seventeen hydrogen cells, and two 15-horsepower (11.2-kilowatt) Daimler internal combustion engines, each turning two propellers. It was about 420 feet (128 meters) long and 38 feet (12 meters) in diameter and had a hydrogen-gas capacity of 399,000 cubic feet (11,298 cubic meters). During its first flight, it flew about 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) in 17 minutes and reached a height of 1,300 feet (390 meters). However, it needed more power and better steering and experienced technical problems during its flight that forced it to land in Lake Constance. After additional tests conducted three months later, it was scrapped.

Zeppelin continued to improve his design and build airships for the German government. In June 1910, the Deutschland became the world's first commercial airship. The Sachsen followed in 1913. Between 1910 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, German zeppelins flew 107,208 (172,535 kilometers) miles and carried 34,028 passengers and crew safely.

At the beginning of World War I, Germany had ten zeppelins. During the war, Hugo Eckener, a German aeronautical engineer, helped the war effort by training pilots and directing the construction of zeppelins for the Germany navy. By 1918, 67 zeppelins had been constructed, and 16 survived the war.

During the war, the Germans used zeppelins as bombers. On May 31, 1915, the LZ-38 was the first zeppelin to bomb London, and other bombing raids on London and Paris followed. The airships could approach their targets silently and fly at altitudes above the range of British and French fighters. However, they never became effective offensive weapons. New planes with more powerful engines that could climb higher were built, and the British and French planes also began to carry ammunition that contained phosphorus, which would set the hydrogen-filled zeppelins afire. Several zeppelins were also lost because of bad weather, and 17 were shot down because they could not climb as fast as the fighters. The crews also suffered from cold and oxygen deprivation when they climbed above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).

At the end of the war, the German zeppelins that had not been captured were surrendered to the Allies by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and it looked like the Zeppelin company would soon disappear. However, Eckener, who had assumed the company's helm upon Count Zeppelin's death in 1917, suggested to the U.S. government that the company build a huge zeppelin for the U.S. military to use, which would allow the company to stay in business. The United States agreed, and on October 13, 1924, the U.S. Navy received the German ZR3 (also designated the LZ-126), delivered personally by Eckener. The airship, renamed the Los Angeles, could accommodate 30 passengers and had sleeping facilities similar to those on a Pullman railroad car. The Los Angeles made some 250 flights, including trips to Puerto Rico and Panama. It also pioneered airplane launch and recovery techniques that would later be used on the U.S. airships, the AkronandMacon.

When the various restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on Germany were lifted, Germany was again allowed to construct airships. It built three giant rigid airships: the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, LZ-l29 Hindenburg, and LZ-l30 Graf Zeppelin II.

The Graf Zeppelin is considered the finest airship ever built. It flew more miles than any airship had done to that time or would in the future. Its first flight was on September 18, 1928. In August 1929, it circled the globe. Its flight began with a trip from Friedrichshaften, Germany, to Lakehurst, New Jersey, allowing William Randolph Hearst, who had financed the trip in exchange for exclusive rights to the story, to claim that the voyage began from American soil. Piloted by Eckener, the craft stopped only at Tokyo, Japan, Los Angeles, California, and Lakehurst. The trip took 12 days—less time than the ocean trip from Tokyo to San Francisco.

During the 10 years the Graf Zeppelin flew, it made 590 flights including 144 ocean crossings. It flew more than one million miles (1,609,344 kilometers), visited the United States, the Arctic, the Middle East, and South America, and carried 13,110 passengers.

When the Hindenburg was built in 1936, the revived Zeppelin company was at the height of its success. Zeppelins had been accepted as a quicker and less expensive way to travel long distances than ocean liners provided. The Hindenburg was 804 feet long (245 meters), had a maximum diameter of 135 feet (41 meters), and contained seven million cubic feet (200,000 cubic meters) of hydrogen in 16 cells. Four 1,050-horsepower (783-kilowatt) Daimler-Benz diesel engines provided a top speed of 82 miles per hour (132 kilometers per hour). The airship could hold more than 70 passengers in luxurious comfort and had a dining room, library, lounge with a grand piano, and large windows.

The Hindenburg's May 1936 launch inaugurated the first scheduled air service across the North Atlantic between Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and Lakehurst, New Jersey. Its first trip to the United States took 60 hours, and the return trip took only a quick 50. In 1936, it carried more than 1,300 passengers and several thousand pounds of mail and cargo on its flights. It had made 10 successful roundtrips between Germany and the United States.

But that was soon forgotten. On May 6, 1937, as the Hindenburg was preparing to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, its skin caught fire from electrical discharges in the atmosphere because the paint used was flammable. Then, gas cells one and two exploded. The accident killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew. Its destruction, seen by horrified spectators in New Jersey, marked the end of the commercial use of airships.

Germany had constructed one more large airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, which first flew on September 14, 1938. However, the start of World War II, coupled with the disaster that had befallen the Hindenburg earlier, kept this airship out of commercial service. It was scrapped in May 1940.



Archbold, Rick, Marschall, Ken (il.). Hindenberg – An Illustrated History. N.Y.: Warner Books, 1994.

Botting, Douglas. The Giant Airships. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Payne, Lee. Lighter Than Air, an Illustrated History of the Airship. N.Y.: Orion Books, 1991.

Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1972.

On-Line References:

Airships: DJ's Zeppelin Page: http://www.airships.net.

The Zeppelin Museum. http://www.zeppelin-museum.de/

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.

National Center for History in the Schools

World History Standards

Era 8

Standard 4

The global consequences of World War II.