There is often confusion surrounding the terminology of airships in particular the differences between dirigibles, blimps and zeppelins. All of these are airships and all are dirigibles. Dirigible stems from the French verb ‘diriger’ meaning ‘to steer’ so any steerable airship is thus a dirigible. Blimps are non-rigid airships with the shape of their balloon maintained by the pressure of the gas within. Rigid airships have a framework surrounding gas cells. There are semi-rigid airships too, which usually have a keel that supports the inflatable balloon. The word ‘Zeppelin’ only applies to airships manufactured by the Zeppelin company (more about them later).
There were several pre-19th century innovations in air travel, beginning with the Mongolfier brothers who pioneered the hot air balloon and most notably the 1785 crossing of the channel by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries. In 1793 Blanchard surpassed this with a balloon trip from America to England. But these were essentially one-way trips with little to no steering involved. They were not ‘dirigibles’. The first person to make a flight in an engine powered dirigible was Henri Giffard in 1852. He traveled 27 km in a steam-powered, hydrogen-filled airship. The highly dangerous combination of a hydrogen-filled balloon with a furnace beneath naturally caused concern and other means of propulsion and lift were investigated throughout the century including a manual propeller that took eight men to power during the Franco-Prussian war and a balloon filled with coal gas from an internal combustion engine in 1872. Electrically powered dirigibles were also constructed most notable of which was the French army airship La France which made the first fully controlled (returning to its starting point) flight in 1884.
The most famous of all airships were the Zeppelins, so named after Count von Zeppelin who was inspired by the possibilities he saw during his time as an observer in the American Civil War. The Union was experimenting with hydrogen gas generators that used tanks filled with iron filings and sulfuric acid. The Union Army Balloon Corps was founded in 1861 and played a valuable role in scouting out Confederate movements in the Peninsular Campaign. There was even a patent for an unmanned ‘bomb-dropping’ balloon in 1863. Further inspired by the success of La France, Count von Zeppelin began work on an aluminium frame covered with fabric and filled with rubberized cotton gas cells that could be inflated independently. The Zeppelin LZ1 made its first flight in 1900 and, although it remained airborne for twenty minutes, it was forced to make an emergency landing and potential investors were not impressed. Support from the King of Wurttemburg and the German public meant that Count von Zeppelin could continue experimenting with airships eventually resulting in the Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin (Zeppelin Construction Company) in 1908. Zeppelins and other dirigibles were used in the First World War by the Germans to bomb London and Paris but they proved vulnerable to fire from anti-aircraft batteries and planes. Hydrogen was still the gas of choice due to the scarcity of Helium and the dangers of this were highlighted by the Hindenburg Disaster of 1937. This along with improvements in ‘heavier than air aircraft’ (planes) meant that the airship/dirigible was more or less obsolete by the Second World War. Nowadays airships are mostly used for advertising (like the Goodyear Blimp) and as TV camera platforms.
The age of the airship is over but the gargantuan vehicles of the sky have left an indelible mark on our imaginations. Steampunk is a genre eternally linked with the airship and various high-tech dirigibles appear against blighted landscapes of alternate futures on the covers of many novels like Cherie Priest’s Clementine. My own contribution to the genre (the upcoming novel Golden Heart and short story On Rails of Gold) presents an alternate version of American history where the Civil War has dragged on for two decades and has seen many technological innovations including the field of airships.