The son of German nobility, Zeppelin entered the military and, as was expected of aristocrats of the time, served in the American Civil War. While in theUnited States, he became interested in air travel after observing balloons being used by the military for intelligence gathering. He returned to Germany and rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in the German army. He then left the army in 1891 to devote himself to aviation.
While hospitalized for a riding injury in 1874, he outlined plans for an airship as big as an ocean liner, capable of carrying cargo, mail, and twenty passengers. He already knew how the dirigible should be constructed: a rigid metal structure of vertical rings held in place by long rows of girders; separate gas cells between the rings; a fabric skin covering the metal structure. However, no power source was yet available to drive this airship through the skies, so Zeppelin had to wait until the internal combustion engine was refined.
In June 1898, construction began on his first airship with money raised through public donations and his own fortune. Completed in 1900, the LZ-1 (Luftschiff Zeppelin 1) proved a failure because, despite its length of 400 feet (122m) and diameter of 38 feet (11.59 m), it could lift a payload of only 660 pounds (299.64 kg) and was not very maneuverable. His money gone, Zeppelin dismantled the airship and dismissed his workers, except for his chief engineer,Ludwig Durr.
Zeppelin tried again in 1904. The King of Wurttemberg held a public lottery and Zeppelin mortgaged his wife's country estates in Latvia. In January 1906,the new ship, LZ-2, was destroyed during a storm, but the German government,already convinced of the airship's military potential, funded the construction of the LZ-3. Built with the addition of horizontal fins for stability, thisairship proved a success, flying for over two hours at a speed of 24 miles per hour (38.6 kph) carrying 5,500 pounds (2,497 kg) of water, ballast, and eleven people.
The LZ-3, however, could not meet the military's requirement that it remain aloft for twenty-four hours, so Zeppelin created the LZ-4. On August 4, 1908,this airship took off in an attempt to meet those endurance standards. It notonly surpassed the requirements, but it also achieved the speed of forty miles per hour (64 kph). The zeppelin set down with an engine problem, an unexpected squall came up, and the craft lurched into the air. A crew member brought it down into some trees where a branch tore the outer cover and a gas cell.No one knew that the cell's material, rubberized cloth, would shoot off sparks of static electricity if it rubbed on itself. As a result, the entire airship went up with a whoosh of flame and a gigantic explosion when the flammable hydrogen gas ignited.
The German people, who had come to know and love the determination of Count von Zeppelin, immediately contributed to a fund established to help him buildanother. When LZ-5 flew the longest voyage yet by any powered craft (thirty-eight hours in 1909), it looked like a success for the Count. But the airshipwas too slow for the military, which refused to buy it and the already-builtLZ-6.
Zeppelin realized he needed some other market for his creation, so he turnedto public transportation. He established the German Airship Transport Company(Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktien Gesellschaft--DELAG). It began operations between German cities in 1910, but all three of its dirigibles either crashedor burned. The next airship, LZ-10, had new and better engines as well as other modifications which allowed it to be more reliable and maneuverable. It was a success when it first flew in 1911 allowing DELAG to build three more zeppelins. When World War I started in 1914, these airships had carried over 10,000 passengers without any problems.
In his last years, the Count finally saw the military accept his airships forpatrol and bombing purposes. His determination had captivated a nation, andhis designs had done much to establish the value of lighter-than-air craft.