New College of the Humanities

The Rigid Airship

Count Zeppelin and his successors in Germany and Britain backed an invention that failed; but David Sawers describes how, during its lifetime, the airship attracted the enthusiasm of many aeronautical engineers.

The history of the airship is a cautionary tale. For all the enthusiasm it aroused, among the most distinguished scientists and engineers as well as the impressionable populace, it has vanished from the earth—leaving nothing as a memorial but some of the vast hangars in which it lived.

From 1910 to 1930 it had been accepted as one of the scientific wonders of the world, after overcoming with surprising ease the usual scepticism that greets an invention. But the speed with which all but the most dedicated enthusiasts forgot the airship, after the series of disasters that ended its active career, suggests that their enthusiasm had shallow roots. It was based on hopes alone; and when they were not fulfilled, it withered fast.

Attempts to win support for the rigid airship in the 1890’s attracted few beyond the makers of the aluminium from which it would be built. Just who first had the idea of a rigid airship it is hard to say: the use of aluminium for balloons had been suggested by several people during the nineteenth century, but it was not until around 1890 that anything definite appeared.

David Schwarz, an Austrian, was the first to design and build a rigid airship in 1893, and his second design was the first rigid airship to fly, in 1897. But its brief flight ended in a crash landing—and the machine was torn to pieces by a derisive mob. As Schwarz had died before the flight, his work came to a stop: the way was now left open for Count Zeppelin.

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