Science Fiction & Fantasy



A Very Brief History of Airships

From the Hindenburg to the Goodyear Blimp, airships have for centuries captured our collective imagination and, in recent years, given lift to the popularity of the steampunk genre. But how much do we know, really, about their history and evolution? How did steerable, lighter-than-air craft progress from some crackpot inventor’s dream to the elegant, Victorian technology of literature?

Well, it certainly didn’t happen overnight.

The “Golden Age” airships, in all their silvery, romantic glory, were, in fact, the culmination of nearly a hundred and fifty years of development in many disparate fields. That’s a long history to sort through, so perhaps we should start with the precursor to the airship: the balloon.

The March of Intellect

A satirical print, British, from the late 18th early 19th Centuries, titled “The March of Intellect.” Harry F. Guggenheim Collection. Image courtesy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

As early as 1783, the Montgolfier brothers caused a huge sensation throughout the civilized world when, before a crowd including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, they heated the air inside an envelope of alum-varnished taffeta and launched a sheep, a duck and a rooster on an eight minute, two mile flight across the royal palace of Versailles, the first flight ever to carry a living creature. The Montgolfiers, subsequently, were rewarded for their efforts with elevation to the nobility, and standard hot air balloons are to this day known as Montgolfiers.

Now, at the same time the brothers were busy flying farm animals across the French countryside, Jacques Charles and his buddies Les Frères Robert were in Paris doing nearly the same thing before a large, paying crowd that included then-American envoy to France, Benjamin Franklin. Instead of hot air, however, Charles was using hydrogen to obtain buoyancy. (And instead of the sheep, Charles himself and Nicolas-Louis Robert were the flight crew—a slightly more dignified pair of attendants.)

The flight of la charliere lasted a whopping two hours five minutes and featured such advanced controls as a hydrogen release valve and sand bag ballasts. Thereafter, the use of hydrogen as a lift element superseded hot air. (Helium, eventually, would come into play as the best alternative for lift, being both more buoyant than hot air and less volatile than hydrogen, but it was not produced in sufficient quantities for use with airships until after the First World War.)

British dirigible, The Eagle

A diagrammatic illustration of British dirigible, "The Eagle." Harry F. Guggenheim Collection. Image courtesy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Despite a great deal of creativity and novel invention, however, the real holy grail of LTA travel remained, for quite some time, completely out of reach: steerability.

In 1849, a newspaper editor rather shortsightedly wrote: “Now, a flying machine can never be steered. Yet…there will be dolts to believe in it, we suppose, to the end of time.” Probably a good thing no one mentioned space exploration to this guy.

He was, however, correct in one thing: there will be dolts to believe in it. And, in the great tradition of human endeavor, to try and achieve it.

A significant hurdle to making the balloons navigable was the spherical shape itself. With neither a fore nor aft end, the balloons were at the mercy of the breezes. Of course, that didn’t stop various attempts to control the craft with flaps, wings, wheels and oars. But all those efforts merely spun the balloon helplessly around without providing the needed forward propulsion. A change in the shape of the craft was the order of the day, and that lead to some, well…interesting configurations.

In 1852, Ernest Petin proposed a vessel of multiple balloons strung to a long, horizontal scaffolding. Solomon Andrews, in 1860, built his Aereon airship of three cylindrically shaped gas bags side by side. And in 1884, Alfred Boult planned to mount two balloons to a long, wooden cabin—one at either end—which was to be steered by oars protruding from the sides and pushed forward by a propeller at the aft.

But before all that nonsense, there was Jean Baptiste Meusnier. In 1784—right around the same time the Mongolfiers and Jacques Charles were floating around France—Meusnier was the first to propose the familiar long cigar shape still used today, and for this he is now known as the father of the modern dirigible.

Meusnier’s plan was for a two hundred and sixty foot long envelope with air cells—ballonets—to regulate lift. Forward motion would be provided by three airscrew propellers and steerage by a rudder on the aft.

It was a good start, but, in the end, what airships really needed for true controllability was motorized propulsion.

Henri Giffard in 1852 built an airship powered by a three-horsepower steam engine. In 1872 German engineer Paul Haenlein flew a tethered dirigible with an internal combustion engine. But these engines, of course, were heavy. Any lift they achieved was marginal, so it isn’t until 1884 that you get the first fully controlled free flight.

The ship was named La France and was constructed by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs. Powered by electricity, the La France traveled almost five miles and made five full round trip flights to land back at its starting point. This demonstration of controllability was a huge achievement and silenced, once and for all, the naysayers.

Then, as the century turned, Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich Graf Von Zeppelin changed the game with the introduction of the Luftschiff.

Montgolfier Balloon over Paris

The launch of the Montgolfier Balloon over Paris, “Expérience fait à Versailles le 19 Sept 1783." Harry F. Guggenheim Collection. Image courtesy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Count Zeppelin was another one of those dolts who persisted in believing in the possibility of steerable flying machines. Born in Konstanz, Baden on July 8, 1838, he traveled to America and served as an observer with the Union cavalry during the Civil War, witnessing the use of balloons to observe and report on Confederate troop movements.

Returning to Europe, Zeppelin further observed the use of balloons during the Siege of Paris, and, after seeing reports of the La France, he was convinced of the need for a German ship to counter the French.

So he petitioned the King of Württemberg for development support and worked fulltime with engineers to develop and refine his concept.

The result? The Luftschiff Zeppelin 1, or LZ 1, was launched before twelve thousand spectators on the banks of the Bodensee at 8 p.m. on the second of July, 1900. The Count himself was at the controls.

At four hundred and twenty feet in length, and thirty-eight feet in diameter, the LZ 1 was then the largest thing ever built to fly and was the first of the rigid airships, dirigibles built with internal, aluminum skeletons that didn’t depend on pressure to maintain their shape and so could be made larger, travel at greater speeds and withstand more inclement weather conditions.

Zeppelin and his men had the ship towed out of its hanger on the water by a steam launch while the locals looked on. The inaugural flight carried five people, reached an altitude of thirteen hundred feet and flew a distance of three and a half miles. But after eighteen minutes the craft was forced to return to the hanger due to engine trouble and a bent frame—not the flawless debut Zeppelin was hoping for.

Nevertheless, the maiden voyage of the LZ 1 proved to be a ground-breaking event, leading, eventually, to the development of the most successful airship in the history of LTA travel, the Zeppelin, and ushering in the glorious era of air transportation.

At last, the Golden Age of Airships had been born.

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Gregory K. H. Bryant

Bryant, GregoryGregory K. H. Bryant is a registrar with the National Air and Space Museum, where he has been on staff since 1978.  His poetry, essays and short stories have appeared widely in the underground press, notably Bouillabaisse, Wormfeast, Homemade Ice Cream Press, Musea, and Shockbox, as well as Gaslight Magazine and Black Lotus Magazine.