Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a German aircraft pioneer whose name became synonymous with rigid airships. His “zeppelins” were lighter-than-air vehicles that floated because they contained huge bags of light gas, like balloons. But unlike balloons, zeppelins could be propelled forward and steered with an engine. Zeppelins also contained a rigid metal or wooden framework that supported the craft. These rigid airships were once the largest and grandest type of aircraft.
Zeppelin was born on July 8, 1838, in Constance, Baden, and was trained to be an army officer. He visited the United States during the American Civil War. During this time, Zeppelin took balloons up into the sky with Union forces. He became convinced of the value of aircraft. In 1870, Zeppelin served in the Franco-Prussian War. After he retired, he spent most of his time and savings on developing aeronautics. Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually offered Zeppelin financial support. Zeppelin died on March 8, 1917.
In 1937, one of the largest zeppelins ever built—the Hindenburg—exploded as it approached its destination in New Jersey. Thirty-six people were killed in the disaster, and the use of airships for passenger transport came to an abrupt end. While some airships are still used today, airplanes have largely replaced zeppelins. Airplanes can fly much faster than zeppelins, making them more useful in both passenger transport and in warfare.