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A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship named after the German inventor Ferdinand von Zeppelin (German pronunciation: [ˈt͡sɛpəliːn] ⓘ) who pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the 20th century. Zeppelin's notions were first formulated in 1874 and developed in detail in 1893. They were patented in Germany in 1895 and in the United States in 1899. After the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the word zeppelin came to be commonly used to refer to all forms of rigid airships. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910 by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), the world's first airline in revenue service. By mid-1914, DELAG had carried over 10,000 fare-paying passengers on over 1,500 flights. During World War I, the German military made extensive use of Zeppelins as bombers and as scouts. Numerous bombing raids on Britain resulted in over 500 deaths.
The defeat of Germany in 1918 temporarily slowed the airship business. Although DELAG established a scheduled daily service between Berlin, Munich, and Friedrichshafen in 1919, the airships built for that service eventually had to be surrendered under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which also prohibited Germany from building large airships. An exception was made to allow the construction of one airship for the United States Navy, the order for which saved the company from extinction.
In 1926, the restrictions on airship construction were lifted and, with the aid of donations from the public, work began on the construction of LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. That revived the company's fortunes and, during the 1930s, the airships Graf Zeppelin, and the even larger LZ 129 Hindenburg operated regular transatlantic flights from Germany to North America and Brazil. The spire of the Empire State Building was originally designed to serve as a mooring mast for Zeppelins and other airships, although it was found that high winds made that impossible and the plan was abandoned. The Hindenburg disaster in 1937, along with political and economic developments in Germany, hastened the rapid demise of zeppelins.
The principal feature of the Zeppelin's design was a fabric-covered, rigid metal framework made up of transverse rings and longitudinal girders containing a number of individual gasbags. The advantage of that design was that the aircraft could be much larger than non-rigid airships, which relied on a slight overpressure within the single-pressure envelope to maintain their shape. The framework of most Zeppelins was made of duralumin, a combination of aluminium and copper as well as two or three other metals, the exact content of which was kept a secret for years. Early Zeppelins used rubberized cotton for the gasbags, but most later craft used goldbeater's skin, made from the intestines of cattle.
The first Zeppelins had long cylindrical hulls with tapered ends and complex multi-plane fins. During World War I, following the lead of their rivals Schütte-Lanz Luftschiffbau, the design changed to the more familiar streamlined shape with cruciform tail surfaces, as used by almost all later airships.
Zeppelins were propelled by several engines, mounted in gondolas or engine cars, which were attached to the outside of the structural framework. Some of these could provide reverse thrust for manoeuvring while mooring.
Early models had a comparatively small externally-mounted gondola for passengers and crew which was attached to the bottom of the frame. This space was never heated, becausse fire outside of the kitchen was considered too risky so, during trips across the North Atlantic or Siberia, passengers were forced to bundle themselves in blankets and furs to keep warm and were often miserable from the cold.
By the time of the Hindenburg, several important changes had taken place: the passenger space had been relocated to the interior of the overall vessel, passenger rooms were insulated from the exterior by the dining area, and forced-warm air could be circulated from the water that cooled the forward engines, all of which made traveling much more comfortable. That did prevent passengers from enjoying the views from the windows of their berths though, which had been a major attraction on the Graf Zeppelin. On both the older and newer vessels, the external viewing windows were often open during flight. The flight ceiling was so low that no pressurization of the cabins was necessary, though the Hindenburg did maintain a pressurized air-locked smoking room, in which no flame was allowed. A single electric lighter was provided, which could not be removed from the room.
Access to Zeppelins was achieved in a number of ways. The Graf Zeppelin's gondola was accessed while the vessel was on the ground, via gangways. The Hindenburg also had passenger gangways leading from the ground directly into its hull which could be withdrawn entirely, ground access to the gondola, and an exterior access hatch via its electrical room; this latter was intended for crew use only.
On some long-distance units, Blau gas was used to run the engines of the Zeppelin airships. This had the advantage in that the weight of Blau gas was near that of air. Thus the use of large quantities of Blau gas as a propellant had little impact on the Zeppelin buoyancy. Blau gas was used on the Zeppelin airship's first voyage to America, starting in 1929. The Zeppelin facility in Friedrichshafen produced the Blau gas.