Zeppelin Lz-18 (L-2)
Zeppelin Lz-18 (L-2) was the second airship to enter service with the German Navy. The first Naval airship, L-1, was lost on 9 September, and the L-2 was destroyed in an accident on 17 October 1913, after only a month of operations. The Lz-18 had a third gondola placed in front of the front engines. Somewhat ironically this picture was used in a British First World War publication to illustrate the current lead held by German naval Zeppelins.
War of Words – ‘Zeppelin’
The German inventor Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin was behind the rigid airship, which first flew in 1900.
‘Zeppelin’ appeared in English that same year in Whitaker’s Almanack: ‘The Zeppelin Air-ship… is a cylindrical frame of aluminium in partitions, each holding a gas-bag.’
It would later gain infamy as an aerial weapon of terror, being used as a bomber over the Continent from the outset of the First World War.
On 12 September 1914, the magazine Land & Water reported that ‘a Zeppelin has dropped bombs on Antwerp’. It would become even more loathsome when night bombing raids on Britain itself began in 1915. They continued until 1918.
‘Zeppelin’ quickly became a verb. ‘They will Zeppelin the fleet and walk through our army’, wrote H.G. Wells in 1916’s Mr Britling Sees It Through.
Buoyed skyward by hydrogen gas contained inside cells, the Zeppelin was steerable, with motive power provided by petrol engines linked to propellers. Its primary attributes were its long range and lofty service ceiling.
Many Zeppelins flew so high that the slow-climbing fighter aeroplanes of the day struggled to reach them.
But the Zeppelin had severe drawbacks. Chief among them was its low speed, which even in the advanced ‘R’ class was a mere 62 miles per hour. The hydrogen was also extremely flammable.
Their effectiveness was also questionable. The Zeppelins did little damage to Britain, being more of a vexation to public morale.
Meanwhile, German losses mounted as defences against the nocturnal intruders were developed, including anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, fighters, and incendiary or explosive ammunition. This was well suited to setting the hydrogen-filled balloons aflame.
Yet the memory of the giant German airships has persisted since the Great War. The oxymoronic name of the rock band Led Zeppelin, for example, conveyed the disjunction of an ostensibly lighter-than-air dirigible made of lead.
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.
Dozens of hydrogen airships exploded or burned in the years before before the Hindenburg disaster finally convinced the world that hydrogen is not an acceptable lifting-gas for airships carrying people.
The following is a partial list of hydrogen-inflated airships that were destroyed by fire from accidental causes (the list does not include ships shot down in combat operations):
- LZ-4 (August 5, 1908)
- LZ-6 (September 14, 1910)
- LZ-12/Z-III (June 17, 1912)
- LZ-10 Schwaben (June 28, 1912)
- Akron (July 2, 1912)
- LZ-18/L-2 (October 17, 1913)
- LZ-30/Z-XI (May 20, 1915)
- LZ-40/L-10 (September 3, 1915)
- SL-6 (November 10, 1915)
- LZ-52/L-18 (November 17, 1915)
- LZ-31/L-6 and LZ-36/L-9 (September 16, 1916)
- LZ-53/L-17 and LZ-69/L-24 (December 28, 1916)
- SL-9 (March 30, 1917)
- LZ-102/L-57 (October 7, 1917)
- LZ-87/LZ-117, LZ-94/L-46, LZ-97/L-51, and LZ-105/L-58 (January 5, 1918)
- LZ-104/L-59 (April 7, 1918)
- Wingfoot Air Express (July 21, 1919)
- R-38/ZR-II (August 23, 1921)
- Roma (February 21, 1922)
- Dixmude (December 21, 1923)
- R101 (October 5, 1930)
- LZ-129 Hindenburg (May 6, 1937)
Description of the Accidents
LZ-4 (August 5, 1908)
After an emergency landing near Echterdingen, Germany, LZ-4 was was torn from its temporary mooring by a gust of wind and ignited after hitting a stand of trees.
Burned wreckage of LZ-4 near Echterdingen
LZ-6 (September 14, 1910)
LZ-6, owned by the world’s first passenger airline, DELAG, was destroyed at Baden-Oos by a hydrogen fire which began when a mechanic used petrol to clean the ship’s gondola.
LZ-12/Z-III (June 17, 1912)
LZ-12 ignited and burned in its hangar at Friedrichshafen while being deflated.
LZ-10 Schwaben (June 28, 1912)
The passenger airship Schwaben was destroyed by fire at the airship field at Dusseldorf when its hydrogen was ignited by static electricity from the ship’s rubberized fabric gas cells.
Wreck of LZ-10 Schwaben at Dusseldorf
Akron (July 2, 1912)
Melvin Vaniman’s airship Akron exploded 15 minutes after departing Atlantic City, New Jersey, during an attempt to cross the Atlantic.
LZ-18/L-2 (October 17, 1913)
An in-flight engine fire ignited the ship’s hydrogen, killing all aboard.
LZ-30/Z-XI (May 20, 1915)
The ship broke away from its ground crew after being damaged during removal from its hangar it crashed nearby and was destroyed when its hydrogen ignited.
LZ-40/L-10 (September 3, 1915)
L-10 was destroyed by a hydrogen fire during a thunderstorm near Cuxhaven as it was returning to its base at Nordholz. It is likely the ship rose in an updraft and released hydrogen which was ignited by the atmospheric conditions. All 19 members of the crew were killed.
SL-6 (November 10, 1915)
SL-6 exploded and burned on takeoff, killing all aboard.
LZ-52/L-18 (November 17, 1915)
The ship caught fire and was destroyed while being refilled with hydrogen at the zeppelin base at TÃ¸nder.
LZ-31/L-6 and LZ-36/L-9 (September 16, 1916)
Both ships were destroyed by fire in their hangar at Fuhlsbuttel when hydrogen was ignited during refilling operations.
LZ-53/L-17 and LZ-69/L-24 (December 28, 1916)
While L-24 was being returned to the shed it shared with L-17 at TÃ¸nder, a gust of wind lifted the ship into the roof of the shed a light bulb ignited a hydrogen fire which destroyed both ships.
SL-9 (March 30, 1917)
SL-9 burned after being struck by lightning in flight over the Baltic, killing all 23 persons aboard.
LZ-102/L-57 (October 7, 1917)
L-57 burned in its shed at the airship base of Niedergörsdorf”“Juterbog after being damaged by high winds during docking operations.
LZ-87/LZ-117, LZ-94/L-46, LZ-97/L-51, and LZ-105/L-58 (January 5, 1918)
An explosion at the zeppelin base at Ahlhorn ignited the hydrogen of all four ships.
LZ-104/L-59 (April 7, 1918)
L-59 exploded in flight and crashed at sea near Malta, killing all 21 members of the crew. L-59 was the famous “Africa Ship” which proved the feasibility of intercontinental zeppelin travel by carrying 15 tons of cargo and 22 persons on a record-breaking 4,225 mile flight during a military relief mission to German East Africa in November, 1917.
Wingfoot Air Express (July 21, 1919)
Goodyear’s Wingfoot Air Express ignited in mid-air and crashed through the skylight of the Illinois Trust & Savings Building in Chicago, Illinois, killing three persons on the ship and ten bank employees and injuring another 27 people. All subsequent Goodyear airships were inflated with helium.
R-38/ZR-II (August 23, 1921)
The British-built R-38 (intended to serve as the United State Navy airship ZR-II) suffered in-flight structural failure over the city of Hull, England and crashed into the River Humber where it ignited, killing 44 of the 49 men aboard.
Roma (February 21, 1922)
The United States Army airship Roma (built by Umberto Nobile) ignited when it hit high-tension electrical wires near Langley Field at Hampton Roads, Virginia, killing 34 of the ship’s 45 crew members. After the Roma disaster the United States government decided never again to inflate an airship with hydrogen.
Dixmude (December 21, 1923)
The French-operated Dixmude was destroyed over the Mediterranean Sea near the coast of Sicily by a hydrogen explosion visible from miles away. Dixmude’s gas cells had apparently been contaminated with air, creating an explosive mixture, and the ship may have been lifted by updrafts in a thunderstorm, causing hydrogen to be vented and then ignited by the electrically charged atmosphere.
R101 (October 5, 1930)
The poorly-designed British R101 lost altitude and sank into a hillside near Beauvais, France. The impact was slight and caused few if any injuries, but the ship’s hydrogen ignited and the ensuing inferno killed 48 of the 55 passengers and crew.
LZ-129 Hindenburg (May 6, 1937)
Hindenburg was destroyed by a hydrogen fire at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
17 October 1913
17 October 1913: On the morning of a scheduled test flight at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, an airfield south east of Berlin, Germany, Marine-Luftschiffes L2, the second rigid airship built for the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen, was delayed by problems with the engines. The morning sun heated the hydrogen contained in the airship’s gas bags, causing the gas to expand and increasing the airship’s buoyancy.
L2 at altitude. This photograph was published in the New York Times, 18 October 1913. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Once released, L2 rapidly rose to approximately 2,000 feet (610 meters). The hydrogen expanded even more due to the decreasing atmospheric pressure. To prevent the gas bags from rupturing, the crew vented hydrogen through relief valves located along the bottom of the hull.
L2 leaves a trail of smoke as it crashes to the ground, 17 October 1913. (Zeppelin-Luftschiffe.com)
In this early design, the builders had placed the relief valves too close to the engine cars. Hydrogen was sucked into the engines’ intakes and detonated. L2 caught fire and a series of explosions took place as it fell to the ground.
All 28 persons on board were either killed immediately, or died of their injuries shortly thereafter.
At the time of the accident, L2 had made ten flights, for a total of 34 hours, 16 minutes.
The flight crew of Marine-Luftschiffes L2
A contemporary news article described the accident:
AIRSHIP AND BALLOON NEWS.
The Wreck of the Zeppelin.
ELSEWHERE in this issue we comment upon the terrible catastrophe which befell the German Navy’s new Zeppelin L2, on Friday last week, just outside the Johannisthal aerodrome, near Berlin. From the following official account it appears that the airship was making a trial voyage:—
“She started this morning for a high flight, with twenty-eight persons on board. After three minutes she had attained a height of two hundred metres (over 600 feet) when flames burst forth between the fore engine-car and the envelope. In two or three seconds the whole ship was on fire and an explosion occurred. At the same time the airship fell slowly head downwards, until she was forty metres (130 feet) from the earth. Here a second explosion took place, presumably of benzine. When the vessel struck the earth a third explosion occurred, and the framework collapsed. A company of pioneers and guide-rope men hastened to the scene, and doctors were immediately in attendance. Two of the crew were picked up outside the ship still alive, but they died shortly afterwards. Lieut. Bleuel, who was severely injured, was taken to hospital. The remaining 25 of the crew had been killed during the fall of the airship or by the impact with the earth. The cause of the disaster appears to have been, so far as is at present known, an outbreak of fire in or over the fore engine-car.”
The commanding officer was Lieut. Freyer, and he was assisted by Lieuts. A. Trenck, Hansmann, and Busch, with thirteen warrant and petty officers. There were also on board as representing the German Navy, Commander Behnisch, Naval Construtors Neumann, and Pretzker, and three secretaries, named Lehmann, Priess, and Eisele. The Zeppelin Co. were represented by Capt. Glund and three mechanics, and Lieut. Baron von Bleuel was a passenger. The last mentioned was the only one rescued alive, and he died from his injuries a few hours later.
One of the first messages of sympathy was addressed by President Poincare’ to the German Emperor.
Extraordinary scenes, showing the way in which the calamity was regarded in Germany, were witnessed at the funeral service of 23 of the victims, held on Tuesday at the Garrison Church. Upon each of the coffins Prince Adalbert placed a wreath from the German Emperor and Empress, who with the Crown Prince and princess, and Princes Eitel Friedrich, Adalbert, August Wilhelm, Oscar and Joachim attended in person, while the Government was represented by the Chancellor, Admiral Tirpitz, the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshall von Moltke, and many other officers. Count Zeppelin was also present.
— FLIGHT, First Aero Weekly in the World. No. 252. (No. 43, Vol. V.), 25 October 1913 at Page 1179
Wreckage of the L2 at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, Germany, 17 October 1913. (Gebrüder Haeckel, Berlin 3227/2)
The Marine-Luftschiffes L2 had been designated LZ 18 by the builders. Both identifications are commonly used (sometimes, L.II). Technical data for L2 is limited and contradictory. One source describes it as having a length of 158 meters (518 feet, 4½ inches), with a diameter of 16.6 meters (54 feet, 5½ inches). Another states 492 feet.
Eighteen hydrogen-filled gas bags were placed inside the rigid framework and covered with an aerodynamic envelope. The airship had a volume of 27,000 cubic meters (953,496 cubic feet), and a lift capacity of 11.1 tons (24,471 pounds).
Four water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 22.921 liter (1,398.725 cubic inches) Maybach C-X six-cylinder inline engines were carried in two cars beneath the hull. They produced 207 horsepower at 1,250 r.p.m., burning bensin (gasoline). Each engine drove a four-blade propeller through a drive shaft and gear arrangement. These engines weighed 414 kilograms (913 pounds), each.
L2 had a maximum speed of approximately 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). At reduced speed, L2 had a 70 hour radius of action.
The Imperial Princes lead the funeral procession. Left to right, Prince Oskar, Prince August Wilhelm, Prince Adalbert, Crown Prince Wilhelm, Prince Eitel Friederich, Prince Joachim.
L2 The Committee
1. Captain Lieutnant Freyer (Commander “L 2”)+, 2. Inspector Neumann +,
3. Navy Chief Engineer Busch+, 4. Captain Gluud+, 5. Captain Lieutenant Trenk,
6. Lieutenant Commander Behnisch +, 7. Navy Chief Engineer Haußmann +.
Busch was married and leaves behind besides his widow, two sons aged two and four years.
Mrs. Captain Gluud reached the terrible news of he death of her husband when she returned home from a visit to the Countess Zeppelin. Captain Gluud was on request of his wife buried in his hometown Bremen.
L2 The Naval Airship
The navy airship “L2” was the largest of all the Zeppelin airships ever built.
A similar catastrophe, as it has affected the “L 1”, appeared to the “L 2”, which had twice the reserve ballast, quite impossible.
The prevailing air-currents at sea, which are more constant than in the country, but therefor act with even greater force, had also made a reinforcement of engine power necessary. The machinery of 720 horsepower are capable to defy even strong storms.
But also outwardly the “L2” did not differ insignificantly from the first naval airship. The heavy service, that officers and crew had on seafarings in the same way, had made a greater protection of the crew and, even though small, comfort necessary. Thus the accomodations situated on the gangway were created more practical than before. The system of wireless telegraphy had been substantially increased. Two radio operators shared the operation of the instruments.
One innovation was the installation of the two powerful spotlights, which were not fed as before by an accumulator battery, but by a dynamo, whose drive was caused by one of the motors in the front gondola. In the middle of the ship there was a platform attached to the air crusier’s back, which offered place to four or five people. There could also a revolving gun been set up, which was designed so that the area under the ship could be swept up to an angle of up to 45 degrees.
The airship had a length of 160 meters, a diameter of 16 1 / 2 feet, had a control gondola, and two engine gondolas, each with two engines.
The gas content of the 18 cells was calculated to 27,000 cubic meters. The four engines, of which the two in front developed each 150, the ones rear each 200 horsepower, were – according to the Maybach’s principle- built in Friedrichshafen.
The crew consisted of 3 officers, 4 mates, and 12 mechanics. Due to its high load capacity, the crew could be doubled in case of emergency. According to the calculations of the engineers of the Zeppelin airship company should this be the first airship that would have been able to run without any greater risk the voyage across the ocean to America.
Zeppelins have been an inspiration to music, cinematography and literature. In 1934, the calypsonian Attila the Hun recorded "Graf Zeppelin", commemorating the airship's visit to Trinidad.  
Zeppelins are often featured in alternate history fiction. In the American science fiction series, Fringe, Zeppelins are a notable historical idiosyncrasy that helps differentiate the series' two parallel universes, also used in Doctor Who in the episodes "The Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel" when the TARDIS crashes in an alternate reality where Britain is a 'people's republic' and Pete Tyler, Rose Tyler's father, is alive and is a wealthy inventor.  They are also seen in the alternate reality 1939 plot line in the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and have an iconic association with the steampunk subcultural movement in broader terms. In 1989, Japanese animator Miyazaki released Kiki's Delivery Service, which features a Zeppelin as a plot element.
In 1968, English rock band Led Zeppelin chose their name after Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, told guitarist Jimmy Page that his idea to create a band would "go down like a lead balloon." Page's manager Peter Grant suggested changing the spelling of "Lead" to "Led" to avoid mispronunciation. "Balloon" was replaced with "Zeppelin" as Jimmy Page saw it as a symbol of "the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace." For the group's self-titled debut album, Page suggested the group use a picture of the Hindenburg crashing in New Jersey in 1937, much to Frau Eva Von Zeppelin’s disgust. Von Zeppelin tried to sue the group for using the name Zeppelin, but the case was eventually dismissed.
Raid on the railways! First World War Zeppelin raids and black-outs
One area of my research that I have found particularly interesting, has been the subject of Zeppelin raids and Black-outs on the railways during the first War. This important and often overlooked part of the war shows that the danger faced by those working on or the railways was not only fighting on foreign soil, but also from the terror of the Zeppelin raids back at home.
The Black-outs of World War Two and the terrible damage and loss of life inflicted by the blitz, are held within the nation’s collective memory most strongly, and we often associate this period as being the time in which the idea of ‘black-outs’ was first conceived. However during the First World War, there was also a need to put out the lights, as German Zeppelin raids commenced on Britain in 1915.
There were over fifty separate Zeppelin raids across the country during the Great War, only coming to an end in May 1918. Although the damage caused by these raids reached nothing like what would be seen in the later Blitz of World War Two, there was still around 300 tons of bombs dropped, resulting in the deaths of 1,414 people, and the injury of many more. There was also wide spread material damage of industrial and port facilities, government and military buildings, as well as civilian properties.
A large proportion of the Zeppelin raids occurred at night, and therefore the need to conceal light was paramount, as any light source would give the enemy a clear target to strike. The government recognised the need to enforce certain measures to secure public safety, and at the beginning of the war, the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’ (DORA) was passed. This act contained, among others, an enforced blackout in certain towns and cities to protect against air raids. The attacks were often indiscriminate, and as such there was little that escaped the wrath of the Zeppelins destruction, including the Railways.
‘The Cowardly Zeppelin Raid of Oct. 13: Bomb-Wrecked Dwelling-Places of Civilians and Women and Children’ as published in Illustrated London News
There are numerous accounts of Zeppelin attacks on Britain during World War One, including one account of a Zeppelin raid on London in 1915, and a subsequent fire in a hostelry and other buildings, caused by an incendiary bomb. The Great Western Railway Magazine, November 1915, reports the bravery of the men from the nearby Euston Station, foreman Hannon (an ex solider), who with a bucket of water rushed into a building to put out a fire. Hannon, along with Shipper Tackley, and Checker Yarnall, were able to rescue some of the occupants, and assist the injured until the arrival of the metropolitan fire brigade and an ambulance. The men were complimented by the company for their prompt and courageous conduct. (source: Great Eastern Railway Magazine, November 1915)
Another account of a Zeppelin attack comes from the report of the bombing of Monkwearmoth Train Station. This particular attack occurred on the night of Saturday 1 April 1916, during a raid of Sunderland by a German Imperial Navy Zeppelin.
‘Terror from the Skies’ – the German Zeppelin LZ 18 (L 2), similar to those used in bombing raids on Britain. (Public Domain image – Wikipedia)
“When first built there was a roof over the lines between the main building at Monkwearmouth Station and the Goods Yard on the west side. This roof provided shelter for the passengers waiting for their trains. The Zeppelin rained down high explosive and incendiary bombs on both sides of the River Wear. A casualty of the raid was the roof over the railway lines and was never repaired, being removed completely 12 years later in 1928.”
(twmuseums.org.uk – Monkwearmouth station bombed)
The bravery of those who lived through the attacks, and the courage that some showed in the face of severe danger was well recorded. This local account comes from a report of a Zeppelin attack on York on the night of May 2, 1916. Zeppelins dropped 18 bombs on Dringhouses, before heading for the city Centre. There they bombed Nunthorpe Hall Red Cross Hospital and Nunthorpe Avenue, killing a young girl who lived there. WT Naylor, a bricklayer at York Carriage Works and a member of the North Eastern Railway fire brigade, was awarded a medallion by the NER Centre of the St John’s Ambulance Association for “conspicuous bravery” during one of the Zeppelin raids. Mr Naylor’s son was in the army and had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery at the front. In the words of the Lord Mayor of York, this showed that “the family came from the right stock”. (Source: York Press, November 2013).
If you are interested in finding out more about the names and addresses of local railwaymen and their families in York, have a look on our online database mentioned above, and look out for the upcoming app. Also check out all the great work that is being done with schools, and the project based around the First World War and the Ambulance Train.
Although laws were enforced to keep all unnecessary lights out, there were of course exceptions to the rules. Posters were issued to remind civilians that the use of torches, and even bicycle lamps were forbidden. However Ministers decided that the railways were too important to close down, even temporarily. Goods had to be moved, and it was deemed essential for the station to keep functioning. This would be the sad case in the account from Nottingham in July 1916, when German Zeppelin pilots apparently on route to Sheffield, noticed the lights of Midland station shinning like a beacon, whilst the rest of the town was in total darkness. The raid resulted in the deaths of civilians, including Alfred T Rogers, 44, and his wife Rosanna, 43.
It was obvious from this attack, as well as others, that stricter measures needed to be put in place in order to prevent further casualties. An inquest into the attack concluded the following:
“The jury are of the opinion that the city was exposed to the risk of attack by airship entirely by the action of the railway companies in keeping their premises lighted until after the first bombs had been dropped.”
Strict rules were put in place in order to protect the general public, as well as those working on the railways during the First World War. The Black-out blinds that were introduced on trains to minimise light were cancelled in April 1917, and a severe measure of complete lights out was put into order during enemy Zeppelin attacks on the railways.
Defence of the Realm Act Poster, National Railway Museum Archive, 1917
However, despite the heavy restrictions, and the looming threat of attack from the skies, there was still room for humour and good cheer. An article from the London and North West Railway (L&NWR) Gazette, November 1916, reports this light hearted take on the newly enforced black-out restriction on the railways
We should not have though that the familiar official notices exhibited in all railway carriages, at the present time, would have afforded a theme for the poet, but the following, the work of an unknown rhymester, was recently found in one of our express trains.
In view of possible attack
On trains upon the railway track
By hostile Aircraft overhead,
The Government has plainly said
“The Blinds of all trains must be drawn
From sunset glow to early dawn.
That no chance ray or spark of light
Shall glimmer through the murky night
Blinds must be drawn completely down
But at a station in a town
The Blinds may sometimes lifted be
In case of great necessity.
But when the train goes again
From looking out you must refrain,
For heavy penalties ensue
To him who lets a ray creep through”
Be sure you’re at the platform quite
Before attempting to alight.
(London and North Western Railway Gazette Volume 5, November 1916.)
Another light hearted story to come out of the Zeppelin raids comes again from the London and North West Railway Gazette. After a Zeppelin was brought down by Anti-Aircraft Defences in Essex in September 1915, members of the company were able to utilise the aluminium portions of the air craft for manufacturing articles such as toasting forks, pipe racks, ‘iron’ crosses, and other souvenirs.
These articles were sold for the War Seal Foundation (London and North West Railway section), which aimed at providing cheerful homes for London and North Western railway men who were disabled in the war.
It ends with this tantalising sentence:
“Several interesting girder portions will also be available for exhibition.”
(L&NW Railway Gazette, Dec 1916 – vol 6. P347/8)
Our own Warehouse holds a piece connected to a downed Zeppelin. Within our fantastic collection of over 1,000 objects, spanning 300 years of railway history, an interesting item can always be found.
A T-shaped Carriage key stored in our Warehouse (C7 DU1), which was made from the aluminium taken from the wreckage of a German Zeppelin brought down during World War One at Potters Bar.
Daniel Morgan is a guest author
Daniel is a Collections Information Volunteer at the National Railway Museum.
There are 151 posts by guest authors.
A History of the Zeppelin
Airplanes were not the first type of aircraft. Lighter than air airships were flying decades before the Wright Brothers flew their first airplane.
Of all the airships, there was one company that became so successful in airship development and construction that their name became synonymous with the rigid airship.
Learn more about zeppelins on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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The history of human flight didn’t start with airplanes. Not surprisingly, it started with hot air balloons.
On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfier Brothers took the first human flight in a hot air balloon. The balloon was tethered to the ground and they got about 85 meters or 275 feet in the air.
The problem with hot air balloons was and is, that you have no control over where you go. You are totally dependent on the direction the wind blows.
Throughout the 19th century, hot air balloons had limited usage, but they couldn’t really be called a form of transportation. You couldn’t reliably go from point A to point B in a hot air balloon.
Moreover, it wasn’t until after World War II that the modern hot air balloon, with an onboard heat source, was invented. Prior to that, the first hot air balloons had to be inflated with fires on the ground.
It wasn’t soon after the first hot air balloon that the first hydrogen balloon flight took place. It flew on December 1, 1783, just two and a half months after the first hot air balloon flight.
Not surprisingly, the hydrogen-filled balloon went much higher than the first hot air balloon. Jacques Charles, Anne-Jean Robert, and his brother Nicolas-Louis Robert took the first hydrogen balloon to 1,800 feet or 550 meters, and the flight went over 2 hours and traveled 35 kilometers.
After the balloon landed, Jacques Charles went back up again by himself, having jettisoned the ballast of two other people, and shot up to 3,000 meters in a matter of minutes.
For decades, this technology was a curiosity.
The story of the creation of actual airships which could be used as transportation began during the US Civil War.
A young Prussian army officer, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, was sent to the United States to be an observer of the Union Army during the war. Many European countries sent observers to both sides of the conflict to get an appraisal of fighting tactics and military technology.
After the war, the count went on a trip to Minnesota where he canoeed on the Mississippi River, traveled to the shore of Lake Superior, and visited the state capital in St. Paul. There, he met a German balloonist who took him on his very first flight.
That flight lit a spark that would stay with him his whole life.
He returned to German and led a distinguished military career. However, he never forgot about his flight.
In 1874, he wrote a diary entry that outlined his idea of a larger, rigid framed airship with separate gasbags. The basic idea which he would implement years later.
In 1887, the La France, an airship created by the French Army, became the first aircraft to launch and travel a predetermined route, and land back where it started. The airship was a non-rigid ship with electric motors
Zeppelin wrote a letter to German officials to point out the strategic importance of the technology and to highlight that Germany was falling behind with no airship industry of their own.
In 1891, at the age of 52, he resigned from the military to devote himself to realizing his dream of creating airships.
He hired an engineer and began work designing his rigid airship.
Here I should take a bit to explain some of the terminology surrounding airships. A blimp is a non-rigid airship. The Goodyear Blimp is an example. It is literally just a giant bag of gas like a balloon, only it has a gondola and it can be controlled. The shape of the blip is set by creating higher pressure inside the gas bag, than in the atmosphere.
A rigid airship has an internal skeleton, usually made of metal. The shape is determined by this structure, not by overpressuring the gasbags. Rigid airships can be much larger than blimps, and they are usually called Zeppelins, named after the man who first built them, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
Zeppelin went to work on the creation of their first prototype. As with most start-up companies today, their first years were taken up with fundraising, filing patents, and getting government approval.
It took 9 years, but on July 2, 1900, the first Zeppelin, the LZ 1, finally flew. The LZ stood for Luftschiff Zeppelin, or Airship Zeppelin.
The LZ1 was the first real zeppelin.
It only flew for 20 minutes on its first flight and didn’t really go anywhere. It had a second flight where it did beat the performance records of the La France, but it didn’t perform well enough to convince investors to put in more money.
The company was liquidated, with all of the assets being purchased personally by Count Zeppelin.
The dream of airships wasn’t dead, however. A lottery was issued to raise money, and Zeppelin invested everything he had, including his wife’s estate into the project.
In 1906, the LZ2 was ready to fly. This too wasn’t a success. It only flew once and crashed.
They salvaged all of the parts of the LZ2 to make the LZ3. With the LZ3, finally, the German military was interested. However, they had a requirement before they would make a significant investment.
They needed to show that the airship could operate for a full 24 hours.
The LZ4 managed to fly across Lake Constantine, and go all the way to Zurich. Along the way, it garnered enormous public attention and tens of thousands of people saw it fly. It was in all of the newspapers.
It managed to go 240 miles, demolishing every airship record. Unfortunately, it crashed and burned, but it had captured the public’s attention.
Donations flowed in from everywhere in Germany. Over six million marks were sent to the count which allowed him to start a new company, the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company.
From here, the company began producing zeppelins in earnest. They began offering tours to the public, most of whom would have never flown in the sky before.
Many of the zeppelins managed over a thousand flights and carried many thousands of passengers. The biggest problem they still faced was high winds, which they usually couldn’t overcome given the state of engines in the early 20th century.
During WWI, zeppelins were used for both reconnaissance and bombing. The bombing missions were mostly for propaganda as they really couldn’t carry a large payload. It wasn’t anything even remotely close to the type of bombing you’d see in the second world war.
Paris, Antwerp, Warsaw and even London were bombed by zeppelins.
This was a totally unique form of warfare that had ever been conducted in world history. Dropping bombs from the sky had never happened before. It required the development of countermeasures, such as blacking out cities, using searchlights to spot zeppelins, and developing anti-aircraft weapons.
The main use of zeppelins, however, was naval reconnaissance. They could be thought of as an early form of radar to let ships know what was just over the horizon.
The war greatly accelerated zeppelin technology. Engines got better, zeppelins got bigger, and they were able to fly higher and faster.
At the end of WWI, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles explicitly stipulated that Germany could not develop airships, and their remaining airships had to be handed over to the allies. Prior to the final signing of the treaty, the German military scuttled most of their zeppelins.
Count von Zeppelin died in 1917 and after the war, the company was put into the hands of one Dr. Hugo Eckener.
Eckner was a big believer in airships as a tool for peace. He wanted to find ways to circumvent the treaty to keep building zeppelins. He eventually found a way when his company won a contract from the United States Navy. The zeppelin would count towards the payment of Germany’s war reparations.
In 1924, the LZ126 was launched and it became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. When the Navy took possession, it was renamed the USS Los Angeles, and the hydrogen gas was replaced with helium.
With the loosening of treaties, the company began to make its next, and greatest ship. The LZ 127 was dubbed the Graf Zeppelin.
The Graf Zeppelin ushered in the golden age of zeppelins. It was the largest zeppelin ever built at 236.6 meters or 776 feet long.
It was designed to be a commercial passenger ship. It operated from 1928 until 1937, and it had a spotless safety record.
During its lifespan, it flew 590 flights and had over 17,000 hours of flight time. It was the first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic. It ran regular runs from Berlin to Brazil.
In 1929, it circumnavigated the globe. In 1930 it flew to the Arctic. It was far and away, the most successful commercial zeppelin in history.
In 1933, Germany changed dramatically when the Nazi Party came to power. Hugo Eckener was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Nazis. When they came to power, he was one of the first people on the list to be arrested.
However, given his position, he was left alone. He was, however, stripped of his position when the Zeppelin company was nationalized, and it was mostly used for propaganda purposes.
The next zeppelin built after the Graf Zeppelin has become infamous. Originally given the code LZ129, it was later named the Hindenburg, named after former German President Paul von Hindenburg.
The Hindenburg remains to this day the largest flying object in human history.
Originally, it was supposed to be inflated with helium, but the Germans had no access to helium. The United States had the majority of the world’s supply, and they refused to sell to the Germans, so they were forced to use hydrogen.
It was destroyed in a very spectacular and public fashion on May 6, 1937, after completing a transatlantic voyage.
The Hindenburg disaster is worthy enough for its own episode, but it will suffice to say that it marked a very emphatic endpoint to the age of zeppelins.
With the onset of World War II, zeppelins served no use. They were too slow, and they were sitting ducks to the new faster aircraft with incendiary ammunition.
The last zeppelin was the Graff Zeppelin II which was launched in 1938, and it was in service for less than a year before it was grounded. In 1940, all of the remaining zeppelins were scrapped for material for the German war effort.
Hugo Eckner, believe it or not, survived the war, despite being an outspoken Nazi critic. He died in 1954.
The Zeppelin company still exists today. It was revived in the 1990s and today makes semi-rigid airships, which are much smaller than the zeppelins of old. The flagship Zeppelin NT is currently in use by the Goodyear corporation for their entire fleet of blimps.
There are a few airships in use, mostly for promotion, and occasionally for industry use. However, the age of lighter than air passenger travel is probably gone, never to return again.
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Zeppelin Lz-18 (L-2) - History
The first Zeppelin flight occurred on 2 July 1900 over Lake Constance in Bavaria. It lasted for only 18 minutes before the LZ-1 was forced to land on the lake after the winding mechanism for the balancing weight broke.
Once repaired, zeppelin technology proved its potential: her second flight was in early October 1900, and her third and final flight was on 24 October 1900.
LZ-3 incorporated all parts of LZ-2 that were still usable. She became the first truly successful Zeppelin, and by 1908 she had traveled 4,398 km in the course of 45 flights. Now the technology interested the German military, who bought LZ-3 and renamed her Z I.
The German army was willing to purchase LZ-4. While attempting to fulfill a military 24-flight requirement, the crew of LZ-4 made an intermediate landing in Echterdingen near Stuttgart. During the stop, a storm tore the airship away from its anchorage on the afternoon of 5 August 1908. The airship crashed into a tree, caught fire, and quickly burnt to ruins.
No one was seriously injured, although two technicians escaped only by making a hazardous jump.
LZ-6 conducted the first Zeppelin experiments with wireless communication.
She was the prototype of the so-called LZ-6 Class of passenger airships, becoming the first commercial passenger Zeppelin. For this purpose, she was taken over by the world's first airline, the newly founded Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG).
LZ-8 Deutschland II
Z II (second ship to bear this designation)
LZ-11 Viktoria Luise
LZ-13 Hansa travelled 44,437 km in 399 flights. She flew the first regular passenger run outside Germany, to Denmark and Sweden.
Z I (second ship to bear this designation)
The German army continued to have little luck with airships. LZ-16 accidentally crossed the French border on 3 April 1913 in misty weather. She was kept in Lunéville by the French army for a day.
LZ-17 Sachsen transported 9,837 passengers in 419 flights, travelling 39,919 km. She was taken over by German military upon outbreak of World War I and decommissioned in the autumn of 1916.