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
There’s a famous recording made by Herb Morrison of WLS radio in Chicago, who was in New Jersey to report on the landing of the Hindenburg and his reaction to watching it burst into flame: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQac088fZaw
Congratulatios on finishing the Challenge!
Thanks fo rthe link, John. I need to listen to it. And thanks so much for stopping by. I’m terribly late on replying, but here I am! 😉
JOHN T. SHEA
Amen re C. W. Hawes’ writings and many thanks for this article, Sarah!
Chris was so nice to help me. And I’m lucky I could turn to him for this post. It would have been poorer without his help.
I heard a reporter reporting and his expression of horror was so different than what we hear in most news reports today.
That’s something I’ve noticed too. News in the 1920s were extremely different from today. They were more personal, in a way. I wonder whether, visul media being less common, the reporter used a more emotional language to bring readers intot he news.
Fascinating post. I’ve enjoyed your daily posts on the “Living the Twenties.” I learned a lot from them!
Thanks so much.
I loved your challenge too. So much info and so much I can actually use.
Sorry for the late reply. This year has been crazy and strange.
Zeppelin was a great invention, and is a great last post! Congratulations on your so interesting theme, I enjoyed it a lot!
Thanks. And congrats to you too. You had such a unique theme!
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Great and interesting last post! I enjoyed your theme this year 🙂
An A-Z of Faerie: Grogoch
Thanks Ronel. You had a great theme too. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I will!
Zeppelins are so cool – I would have loved to ride on one.
Hooray for completing the A-Z challenge!
(Click the Blog link on the second row) : Z is for Zany
So ture. It must have been a great experience.
Before Covid 19 wreaked havoc on the world, I’d hear there’s a company thinking abotu bringing the airship back in service. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
Thanks for what has been an informative and interesting series, and congratulations on making it all the way to the end!
Z is for …
Thanks Keith, and congrats to you too!
The Dream Girl
All of your posts are so well researched and insightful!
I’m glad I found your blog 🙂
Congratulations on completing the A-Z challenge!!
Z is for Zeal
Thanks so much for stopping by and congrats to you too on completing the challenge. It’s alwasy a great achievement.
I would have traveled on one for sure, back in the day… 🙂
Congratulations on another excellent year of A to Z! It is always fun to read your posts and your stories. Cheers! 🙂
The Multicolored Diary
Thanks! I loved your challenge too. So unique!
And who knows? I hear there are companies thinking abotu bringing back the airship. One can dream, right? 😉
Congratulations on finishing another A to Z Challenge! I always enjoy your well-researched posts and series.
Cecil B. DeMille’s first talkie, Madam Satan, features typically decadent scenes at a costume party in a Zeppelin. The fun ends when a thunderstorm damages the Zeppelin and everyone has to parachute to safety. Their escapes are played for laughs, as everyone lands in the most comedically inopportune places.
My goodnes, I have to watch that film! Thanks so much for mentioning it.
And congrats to you on completing yet other TWO challenges. I’m alwasy in awe of what you achieve.
JOHN T. SHEA
Congratulations, Sarah, on your A to Z series! And amen to Carrie-Anne re “MADAME SATAN” a wonderful crazy movie.
Hey, have you all watched it but me? I need to do something about it! ;-P
Fantastic! What an informative read. I am looking out for more on this. I’ve missed parts of your posts previously and I’m going to come around visiting.
Congratulations on completing the challenge.
Thanks, Sonia, and gìcongrats on concluding your challenge. Always a pleasure to meet a fellow history enthusiast 🙂