The zeppelin, long and cylindrical, was a majestic sight in the air, but a catastrophic sight when it fell and burned with a great loss of life.
The zeppelin’s creator was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (18381917), a German army officer who visited the United States during the Civil War to see the balloon operation of the Union forces. He carried a letter of introduction to Abraham Lincoln in his right pocket and a letter to Robert E. Lee in his left pocket, just in case he should be caught by the Confederates. Some say that he served a stint in the Union Army.
Zeppelin made balloon ascents in St. Paul, Minnesota, inspiring him to devote himself to balloons that could be steered and driven by power. In 1900, after thirty years of experimentation, he was able to fly a Zeppelin (now so called) for twenty minutes. He thereupon founded the Zeppelin Company, which produced during its lifetime about a hundred aircraft. His goal was to convince the German government of the practicality of these balloon-type airplanes during wartime. His persuasive powers and his demonstration of zepplins were effective; the German government agreed that these airships had military value. During World War I, Zeppelin built many zeppelins, some used to bomb Paris and London. But these dirigibles, as they came to be called, were slow-moving and poorly maneuverable. They were not an important factor in the German military.
In 1891, Zeppelin retired from the German army with the rank of general. Thereafter, he devoted himself to his primary interest — the making of dirigible airships of rigid construction. Zeppelin died in 1917, twenty years before his zeppelin the Hindenburg went up in flames on
May 6, 1937, at the Naval Air Station, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 of the 97 persons aboard. It was a grave moment for the zeppelin, which shortly thereafter became obsolete.