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IT WAS 1863 and a well-connected German count was on military leave in America. On a trip in the Upper Midwest, this adventurous lieutenant and his party traveled by canoe, stagecoach and hired carriage to St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he met Professor John H. Steiner, an ardent balloonist of German heritage. Steiner was serving as a civilian in the Union Army Balloon Corps.
The count had studied science and engineering at Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, about 20 miles south of Stuttgart. He was posted to the Prussian Ingenieurkorps (engineering corps) and had already witnessed the launch of a military observation balloon during the American Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
The count and Steiner were kindred spirits. On August 19, 1863, Steiner took the count on his first trip aloft. And, years later, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin credited this experience as inspiration for his life’s achievements.
Zeppelin developed his idea of a rigid airship (as opposed to a pure-balloon blimp) in the mid-1870s and expanded details in 1893. His patents were issued in Germany and the U.S. in 1895 and 1899, respectively. The patent describes a Lenkbarer Luftfahrzug mit mehreren hintereinanderen angeordneten Tragkörpern (Steerable Aircraft with several Carrier Structures arranged one behind another, thankfully not all described in a single German noun).
Zeppelin’s first dirigible, the LZ1, made its maiden flight on July 2, 1900. The craft got its lift from 400,000 cu. ft. of hydrogen contained in 17 cells. The LZ1 was 420 ft. in length; by contrast, the largest Boeing 747 is 250 ft. 2 in. long.
The LZ1 had two metal gondolas, each containing a four-cylinder water-cooled Daimler gasoline engine producing perhaps 14 hp. Long driveshafts connected each engine to a pair of outrigger propellers mounted on either side of the hull. The craft’s pitch control relied upon a 220-lb weight beneath the hull being shifted fore and aft over a distance of 85 ft. That is, there were no aerodynamic surfaces for pitch control.
Zeppelins first craft was less than successful. Its engines were underpowered. Its sliding pitch weight jammed. And, though heavy, its structure lacked rigidity and caused a humpback of the hull rising high above the bow and stern.
The LZ1 failed to impress the military; the count was out of funds. However, his basic concept of a rigid structure with separate gas cells was sound.
Five years later, the LZ2 corrected many of the problems. Its funding came principally from two sources: a lottery approved by the King of Württemberg and a mortgage on Countess Zeppelin’s family estates.
Triangular structures replaced the weak tubular sections of the LZ1. The engines were swapped for 80-hp counterparts. However, the craft still lacked any aerodynamic surfaces for stability or pitch control.
The LZ2 made but a single flight, on January 17, 1906. An engine failure forced a landing; the craft was destroyed by a storm that evening.
The LZ3 made further improvements on the concept. Large fins gave stability; movable elevators provided pitch control. In 1907, the LZ3 made a flight of eight hours.
An LZ4 followed in 1908 with a 12-hour demonstration over Switzerland. On its fifth flight, July 3, 1908, King Wilhelm II and Queen Charlotte of Württemberg were aboard. Then Zeppelin accepted a challenge to undertake a 24-hour endurance flight.
During the LZ4’s 24-hour endurance flight, it made an emergency landing at Echterdingen, a town about nine miles south of Stuttgart. A sudden storm dislodged the craft from its temporary mooring. It crashed, caught fire and was destroyed in a hydrogen explosion.
What transpired has been called the Miracle at Echterdingen. Rather than losing faith in Zeppelin’s achievements, the public rallied and contributed 6 million marks (perhaps $36 million in today’s dollar) for construction of a new airship. This led to the establishment of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, Zeppelin Airship Construction, in September 1908.
Shortly afterward came the formation of DELAG, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellshaft (German Airship Travel Corporation Ltd). This affiliate of Zeppelin’s company was the world’s first use of scheduled flight for revenue. Commencing on June 19, 1910, this passenger service by airship beat its heavier-than-air counterpart by three and a half years. The St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line carried its first passenger on January 1, 1914.
Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin died, age of 78, in Berlin on March 8, 1917. It was more than half a century after he first went aloft in St. Paul, Minnesota. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016