After Brigadier General Ferdinand Zeppelin, a German aristocrat, retired from the German Armyin 1891 he devoted himself to to the study of aeronautics. In 1894 the German government rejected his proposals for a lighter-than-air flying machine. Although now aged sixty, Zeppelin decided to invest all his own money in a company producing airships.
By 1898 Zeppelin, with a team of 30 workmen, had assembled his first airship. The main principle of Zeppelin's invention was that hydrogen-filled gas-bags were carried inside a steel skeleton. The airship, which weighed 12 tons and contained 400,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, was driven by propellers connected by two 15-hp Daimler engines. After the Zeppelin LZ made its first flight on 2nd July 1900, the German government decided to help fund the project.
Ferdinand Zeppelin continued to improve his airship and in March 1909 the German Army purchased the Zeppelin Z1. By the outbreak of the First World War they owned seven of these airships. These Zeppelins could reach a maximum speed of 136 kph and reach a height of 4,250 metres. They had five machine-guns and could carry 2,000 kg (4,400 lbs) of bombs.
In the early part of the war Zeppelins were used for bombing raids. A Zeppelin bombed Liege in Belgium on 6th August, 1914 but was forced to land after encountering artillery-fire. Three more Zeppelins were destroyed by ground forces over the next two weeks. Although easy to hit, the Germans continued to use them on attacks on France.
In January 1915, two Zeppelin navel airships 190 metres long, flew over the east coast of England and bombed great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. The first Zeppelin raid on London took place on 31st May 1915. The raid killed 28 people and injured 60 more.
Zeppelins were used at Verdun but four were brought down by ground-fire. This brought an end to their use over the Western Front, but they continued to bomb England. British fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners became very good at bringing down Zeppelins. A total of 115 Zeppelins were used by the German military, of which, 77 were either destroyed or so damaged they could not be used again. In June 1917 the German military stopped used Zeppelins for bombing raids over Britain and instead used them for transporting supplies.
After the war Zeppelins were used for luxury passenger transport. The Graf Zeppelin, which flew round the world in twenty days, included separate passenger cabins, lounges and dining-rooms. The construction of hydrogen-filled airships with rigid keels was abandoned after several disasters including Britain's R.101, that burst into flames over France in 1930.