Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin) was born on July 8, 1838 on an island in the Bodensee (Lake Constance). He attended the military academy at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, and at age 20 became an officer in the army of Wurttemberg.
In 1863, Zeppelin traveled to the United States as a military observer during the American Civil War. With the endorsement of German-born Carl Schurz, who was a general in the Union Army, and the support of others, Zeppelin received a pass signed by President Abraham Lincoln which enabled him to travel with the northern armies. After only a few months, however, Zeppelin left the war zone to explore the American frontier, and it was in St. Paul, Minnesota — far from the battlefields of the Civil War — that Zeppelin saw his first balloon.
Zeppelin’s first experience with lighter-than-air flight was an ascent in this 41,000 cubic foot balloon, inflated with coal gas, which had previously been used as an observation balloon by the Union Army. Operated by John Steiner, a German-born balloonist who had served in the Union Army, the balloon reached 600 to 700 feet in a tethered ascent; Count von Zeppelin had seen the world from the air.
Later in his career Zeppelin renewed his interest in lighter-than-air flight, and began developing preliminary concepts for the design of a steerable airship. In 1874 Zeppelin made entries in his diary describing a rigid-framed, aerodynamically flown ship constructed of rings and longitudinal girders and containing individual gas cells, and in 1887 Zeppelin sent a memo to the King of Wurttemberg formally proposing the use of airships for military purposes. But it was not until his early forced retirement from the Army in 1890, at the age of 52, that Zeppelin was able to devote himself more fully to the problems of lighter-than-air flight. Within 10 years he would build his first airship, Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ-1).
Zeppelin was not only the innovator and driving force behind the construction of the first zeppelin airships, he also piloted and commanded most of the early ships himself.
As a military man, Zeppelin viewed his invention in primarily military terms, and saw it as contribution to his country’s military strength. His plan was for the technology to be adopted by the army and navy, and his early efforts were dedicated to winning their support, and convincing the armed forces to purchase and operate his ships. He was frustrated by military’s lack of early enthusiasm, and it has been said that he viewed the attempt to commercialize his ships with a certain measure of disdain; perhaps from his background as a German aristocrat, he viewed the idea of carrying paying passengers to generate revenue as unworthy of his ships, and of himself.
Despite his desire to see his ships used for military purposes, Zeppelin had a very uneasy relationship with the leaders of the army and navy, who did not share the public’s early enthusiasm for Zeppelin’s creation, and who were understandably skeptical about the military and naval utility of flimsy, underpowered ships which often crashed. Zeppelin’s personal history of unfair treatment — his forced resignation from the Army — may have also added to his feelings. Zeppelin began to withdraw from active involvement with airships after an especially rancorous disagreement with the Navy over blame for the September, 1913 crash of Naval zeppelin L-1 (LZ-14) off the coast of Heligoland, in which 14 men died (the first deaths in any zeppelin accident).
Although pleased by the military contribution his ships made during World War I, Count Zeppelin had little personal involvement with airships during the war, and turned his attention to heavier-than-air craft, particularly “Giant Aircraft” (Riesenflugzeug) such as the Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, and other industrial interests, such as internal combustion engines and gas works.
Count Zeppelin died before the end of World War I, of natural causes at age 78, on March 8, 1917.