Born together with the 20th century, the Zeppelin was perfected during WWI and entered civil use after the war. All through the interwar years, they offered luxury transportation. It was only the terrible disaster of the Hindenburg that put an end to their popularity in 1937.
The invention of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Although hot-air-balloons had been around since the 1700s and the first airship appeared in the mid-1800s, the first of what we now call airships were built by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1900.
The shape of those first zeppelins was very different from what we are familiar with today. They were long and slim, like a pencil, to allow it to get in and out the hangars easily. These were would float on water, which allowed the airship to face into the wind for an easier take off.
Count Zeppelin’s revolution was a cloth-covered aluminium structure, with seventeen hydrogen cells, propelled by a 15-horsepower Daimler internal combustion engine, which could be stirred by directional fins. Quite a fantastic and improbable invention, according to many.
Not according to the king of Wurttemberg, who financed the building of the first prototype. For this reason, rigid airships are often called Zeppelins.All through the interwar years, the Zeppelins offered luxury transportation. The terrible disaster of the Hindenburg put an end to their popularity in 1937 #history #airship Click To Tweet
The Zeppelins and the bombing of London during WWI
During WWI, both sides of the conflict used airships for surveillance, fleet manoeuvres and to spot submarines.
Germany owned the larger fleet of rigid airships and made use of it in a revolutionary way. Although airplanes already existed, they could not fly for the several hours required to reach Great Britain from Germany. Airships could. And they were faster and could transport larger loads of bombs.
When the war came to a deadlock, the Germans decided to try a new strategy: the night of 19 January 1915, they flew their airship over the British Channel and bombarded the eastern coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. Only a first step, because the true target was London, which was bombed later that year and all through the war, with the last bombing on 5 August 1918.
In those early stages of aerial warfare, the business of bombarding a place was quite imprecise. The Zeppelins went out at night, and they needed to fly very high to avoid artillery. It involved a good amount of guesswork. In fact, the actual bombing and consequent destruction wasn’t even the primary goal. In terms of damage, they weren’t very effective. It was the psychological blow the Germans were after.
Despite the great initial shock, these attacks had minimal, if any, military advantage. They were rather designed to break the spirit of the British. A goal that was never really achieved.
The Hindenburg Disaster
The DELAG had started regular air service even before the war. After the war was over, Zeppelins were used ever more often for the transportation of both goods and passenger. For the most part, they were like trains, efficient and Spartan. It was with the Hindenburg that these travels became a luxury.
When the Hindenburg made its maiden voyage in 1936, it inaugurated a time of luxury travel across the Atlantic. It was, in essence, a very special and exclusive transatlantic. It had cabins for the passengers, lounges, a promenade from which the passengers could gaze upon the land and ocean below. It had a smoking room and a bar. Cabins had showers and meals were served on schedule in the dining area.
Travelling on the Hindenburg was very expensive, but it was the experience of a lifetime.
It didn’t last long, though. On 6 May 1937, the Hindenburg – carrying 61 crew and 36 passengers – burst into a fire just when it was approaching the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The fire killed 36 people and was on camera. The media attention and social outcry made travelling by airship seem very dangerous.
By 1937, seaplanes were providing fast service and a fair amount of luxury. Soon, they started supplanting the more expensive airship travel.
Thanks to Christopher Howes for assisting me in writing this post. Chris is a fellow dieselpunk author and a big enthusiast of the history of the airship. If you want to know something about dirigibles and the like, you’d better ask him.
ThoughtCo. – The Hindenburg Disaster
Wired – WWI Zeppelins: Not Too Deadly, But Scary as Hell
BBC – World War One: How the German Zeppelin wrought terror
C|Net – The long, great history of zeppelins
Zeppelin History – History of Zeppelins and Rigid Airships