Science and Invention

Henry Ford

Who invented the airship?

The airship, a lighter-than-air aircraft that has both propulsion (power) and steering systems, had a long evolution. The first successful power-driven airship was built by French engineer Henri Giffard (1825–1882), who in September 1852 flew his craft a distance of 17 miles from Paris to Trappes, France, at an average speed of five miles per hour. The airship was cigar-shaped with a gondola that supported a three-horsepower steam engine. Though it included a rudder, the craft proved difficult to steer. Austrian David Schwarz (1845–1897) is credited with designing the first truly rigid airship, a craft that he piloted—unsuccessfully—in November 1897; the airship crashed.

The inventor whose name is most often associated with airships (also called “dirigibles” after 1885) is Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917), who designed, built, and flew the first successful rigid airship in 1900. The Zeppelin (as the aircraft came to be known) flew at a top speed of about 17 miles per hour. The German aeronaut steadily improved his craft in the years that followed and in 1906 set up a manufacturing plant where the Zeppelins were built. In 1909 Zeppelin helped establish the world’s first commercial airline; the transport was wholly via airship. The crafts saw military use during World War I (1914–18), but after the Hindenburg crashed on landing in New Jersey in 1937, the airships declined dramatically in use. Their decline largely paralleled advances in the development of airplanes.


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