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The term zeppelin refers to a type of rigid airship pioneered by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century (known commonly as a dirigible).

Graf Zeppelin
The most well traveled airship in history.

The craft of the zeppelin design were so successful, that the word zeppelin in casual use came to refer to all rigid airships. Zeppelins are quite distinct from the non-rigid type of airships commonly known as blimps.

In addition to founding the airship construction business, in the early 20th century, Count von Zeppelin also founded the world's first commercial airline called DELAG. Both business were based in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

The zeppelin airships were lighter-than-air craft using a rigid frame construction with an aerodynamic outer envelope and several separate balloons called 'cells' containing the lighter-than-air gas hydrogen completely within the frame. A comparatively small compartment for passengers and crew was built into the bottom of the frame. Several internal combustion engines provided motive power.

The elderly Count was replaced as head of the Zeppelin business by Hugo Eckener. Eckener was both a master of publicity as well as an extremely skilled airship captain. It was under Eckener's guidance that the Zeppelins reached their zenith.

The Zeppelin business was successful up to the 1930s and included long-distance routes from Germany to the United States and South America. The most successful airship of this period was the Graf Zeppelin which flew over 1 million miles including the first circumnavigation of the globe via airship.

The Great Depression and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany both contributed to the demise of the passenger carrying airships. In particular, Eckener and the Nazis had an intense and mutual loathing. The Zeppelin business was nationalized by the German Government in the mid-1930s and closed down a few years later following the Hindenburg disaster, in which the company's flagship zeppelin caught fire during a landing.

However, during approximately 20 years of private operation as an airline, it was at least somewhat profitable, and had a perfect safety record until the Hindenburg fire.

Zeppelins in World War I

Zeppelins were used as bombers during World War I but were not notably successful. At the beginning of the conflict the German command had high hopes for the craft, they appeared to have compelling advantages over contemporary aircraft - they were almost as fast, carried many more guns, had a greater bomb load and enormously greater range and endurance. These advantages did not translate well in reality.

The first offensive use of Zeppelins was just two days after the invasion of Belgium, a single craft the Z 6 was damaged by gunfire and made a forced landing near Cologne. Two more Zeppelins were shot down in August and one was captured by the French. Their use against well-defended targets in daytime raids was a mistake and the High Command lost all respect for the Zeppelin, leaving it to the Naval Air Service to make any further use of the craft.

The main use of the craft was in reconnaissance out over the North Sea and the Baltic, the admirable endurance of the craft led German warships to a number of Allied vessels. During the entire war around 1,200 scouting flights were made. The Naval Air Service also directed a number of strategic raids against Britain, leading the way in bombing techniques and also forcing the British to make the pace on anti-aircraft defences. The first airship raids were approved by the Kaiser in January 1915. The raids were only to target military sites but raiding at night, and after the black-out became widespread, meant many bombs fell randomly in East Anglia.

The first raid was on January 19, 1915, the first bombing of civilians ever, two Zeppelins dropped 50 kg high explosive bombs and ineffective 3 kg incendiaries on Kings Lynn, Great Yarmouth and the surrounding villages. In all five people were killed, although the public and media reaction were out of all proportion to the death toll. There were a further nineteen raids in 1915, dropping 37 tons of bombs killing 181 people and injuring 455. British defences were divided between the Royal Navy and the Army at first (the Army took full control in February 1916) and a variety of sub 4-inch calibres were converted to anti-aircraft use and searchlights were introduced, initially manned by the police and their inexperience led to a number of illuminated clouds being mistaken for attacking airships. Aerial defences against Zeppelins were haphazard, the lack of interruptor gear in early aircraft meant that the first successes was achieved by dropping bombs on them. The first man to bring down a Zeppelin in this way was R. A. J. Warneford of the RNAS, flying a Morane Parasol on June 7, 1915. Dropping six 9 kg bombs he set fire to LZ 37 over Ghent and won the Victoria Cross.

Raids continued in 1916, London was accidentally bombed in May and in July the Kaiser allowed directed raids against urban centres. There were twenty-three airship raids in 1916 dropping 125 tons of ordnance killing 293 and injuring 691 people. Anti-aircraft defences were becoming tougher and new Zeppelins were introduced that doubled the operating altitude from 1,800 m to 3,750 m. To avoid searchlights these craft flew above the cloud layer whenever possible, lowering an oberver through the clouds to direct the bombing. The improved safety was balanced against the extra strain on the airship crews and the British introduction in mid-1916 of forward-firing fighters. The first night-fighter victory came on September 2, 1916 when W. Leefe-Robinson shot down one of a sixteen strong raiding force over London, he too won the Victoria Cross.

The intorduction of effective fighters marked the end of the Zeppelin threat. New Zeppelins came into service that could operate at 5,500 m but exposed them to extremes of cold and changable winds could, and did, scatter many Zeppelin raids. In 1917 and 1918 there were only eleven Zeppelin raids against England, the final raid occured on August 5, 1918 and resulted in the death of Zeppelin-pioneer Peter Strasser.

A total of eighty-eight Zeppelins were built during the war. Over sixty were lost, roughly evenly divided between accident and enemy action. Fifty-one raids had been undertaken, dropping 196.5 tons in 5,806 bombs, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358. It has been argued that the raids were effective far beyond material damage in diverting and hampering wartime production, diverting twelve squadrons and over 10,000 men to air defences.

U.S. Navy zeppelin,
most likely the USS Macon which was built in the
United States by the Goodyear-Zeppelin company in the 1930s,
at what appears to be the
airfield later named Moffett Field, in
Santa Clara, California
Public domain image from NASA''

Other airships

Airships using the Zeppelin construction method are sometimes referred to as zeppelins even if they had no connection to the Zeppelin business. Several airships of this kind were built in the USA, Britain, Italy, and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1923, the first American-built rigid dirigible Shenandoah (ZR-1) ("daughter of the stars") flew. The Zeppelin was christened on August 20 in Lakehurst, New Jersey and was the first to use helium gas. It was tested in flight on September 3. It could carry a large amount of fuel to cruise 5,000 miles at an average speed of 65 mph. A series of fatal crashes halted the American construction of Zeppelins.

The most successful American Zeppelin was the Los Angeles (ZR-3) which was constructed by the Zeppelin Company and delivered to the United States in 1924. It operated until it was retired in 1932 and then served again during World War II.

The history of Zeppelins is of particular interest to stamp collectors. From 1909 through 1939, Zeppelins carried mail during their international flights, including covers (envelopes with stamps attached and canceled) prepared by and for collectors. Many nations issued high-denomination Zeppelin stamps, intended for franking of Zeppelin mail. Among the rarest of Zeppelin covers are those carried during the fateful flight of the Hindenburg; those which survived are invariably charred along the margins, and are worth thousands of dollars. See zeppelin mail for further details.

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Not to be confused with Led Zeppelin, a famous rock band who took their name by substituting "zeppelin" in the expression "lead balloon".