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Today in Geek History: Von Zeppelin Patents the Airship


The only thing cooler than a spaceship — in my humble opinion — is a steampunk dirigible. (Although a space dirigible would be pretty sweet.) But the airship didn’t just spring out of Old World science fiction or the works of Jules Verne. A Jesuit priest in the late 17th century is credited with early experiments in an “aerial ship,” but it was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who, on this day in 1899, received a U.S. patent for the “Navigable Balloon.” He was the first man to “get the Led out.” And because of him, we have that cool scene in The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones throws a Nazi out the window of a zeppelin, then pilots a plane from it mid-flight.

That’s right, our man was a count, which just makes the zeppelin that much more awesome. Moreover, his full name was Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin, and he was also a general, an engineer, and of course an aircraft manufacturer. This aristocrat had a storied career — did you know he came over to be a spectator in the American Civil War? — but when he retired from the German army, he spent his time obsessed with air propellers, hydrogen gas, and “the power-to-weight ratio,” having ranted to officers and kings about the military necessity of dirigibles and how Germany was lagging behind France in this field.

That’s right, he didn’t invent the first airship. He just perfected it, and made it famous, with his U.S. patent (he received a German patent for it a few years earlier). And check out the first ascent of his “rigid airship.”

Were you expecting a dirty joke? Sorry!

The metal airframe is what separates the zeppelin from the blimp. Zeppelins had a hull of lightweight alloy with a fabric skin stretched over it. Helium or hydrogen makes it buoyant, while rudders and engine-driven propellers make it move. Unfortunately, other famous names and ships would become part of von Zeppelin’s legacy — namely 1937’s tragic Hindenburg — but he didn’t live to see the Treaty of Versailles which shut down the zeppelin project, nor its resurgence some years later.

We’re still fascinated with airships and they show up in more and more books, movies, role-playing games, and even video games. There’s an Old World charm to the lighter-than-air balloon ship that we can’t shake. Plus, Led Zeppelin!

(Images courtesy of WikipediaMatteo Matteo on Flickr,, Wizards of the Coast, and the Library of Congress)

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