Zeppelin’s Brobdingnagian Baby

The following is a description of Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin’s first flight of his epoch-making airship on July 2, 1900. This is from the excellent history of that era, Empires of the Sky by Alexander Rose: “The count led them in a short prayer before signaling for the great doors of the hangar to be opened to reveal the marvel hidden within. The vast hangar emptied its womb. Gasps of astonishment greeted the birth of the first Zeppelin airship as it hesitantly emerged from the darkness. At 420 feet, nothing larger had ever been built in the history of aviation. Cylindrical with bullet-shaped ends, the Brobdingnagian baby had skin that was pale, smooth, and taut, made of Pegamoid, a specially impregnated waterproof cotton designed to reduce air resistance more efficiently than (expensive) silk. At the front, for turning, were two vertical rudders made of stretched cotton; at the stern, two of the same. There were twin twenty-foot-long, boatlike aluminum gondolas connected to the airframe undercarriage by tubular struts and wires. Each gondola was located 105 feet from either end and nine feet below the hull. Cleverly, they could float on water in case of emergency, and in each there was one of Daimler’s newest products—a four-cylinder, 850-pound water-cooled engine developing 14.7 horsepower. Personally installed by Wilhelm Maybach, the engines transmitted power to two propellers four feet in diameter turning at 1,200 rpm. What the crowds couldn’t see, or appreciate, was the skeleton within. Alone weighing 4.5 tons—the outer skin added another two—it contained nearly six and a half miles of Carl Berg’s finest aluminum, in addition to several more of wire. Its rib cage consisted of sixteen transverse (cross-sectional) rings, each a twenty-four-sided polygon braced with a weavework of cord and radial wires. Within this rib cage were the organs: seventeen drum-shaped gasbags containing a total of 399,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. At 8:03 P.M., Zeppelin barked, ‘Cast off!’ ‘Thousands of hoorays sounded from the shore,’ recalled Wolf, and ‘all eyes followed the flight of the balloon.’ The flight itself lasted nearly eighteen minutes, with Zeppelin and the crew trying to learn on the job how to keep an airship stable. Finally, Zeppelin decided to settle on the water some distance away to let the towboats bring it back to the hangar. He hoisted a large blue flag to warn the sightseeing boats to steer clear. ‘The air ship sank slowly and rested on the water as smoothly as a sea-gull, with no bump, no crash, no rise, no jumping, no sensation whatever,’ recalled Wolf.”

(Friday Church News Notes, May 14, 2021, www.wayoflife.org, fbns@wayoflife.org, 866-295-4143)