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Ferdinand von Zeppelin

Updated on December 1, 2016

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a German airship builder. Born in Constance (Konstanz), Germany, July 8, 1838; d. Charlottenburg, March 8, 1917. The son of a titled Wiirttemberg court official, he attended the Ludwigsburg Military Academy and the University of Tubingen and received an army commission in 1859. In 1863 he went to the United States and served for a time with the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. Later he took part in an expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi.

While in Minnesota, he made his first balloon ascent. After his return to Europe, he fought for Wurttemberg against Prussia in the Seven Weeks' War (1866) and was a cavalry officer in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He had attained general's rank in the German Army when he was suddenly retired in 1891, at the age of 53. He at once decided to devote his time to the development of dirigible balloons.

Though his costly experiments had soon reduced him to poverty, imperial support and funds raised through public subscription enabled him to build a rigid airship and fly it (for 20 minutes) in 1900. By 1914 several of his dirigibles, called zeppelins, had made flights of more than 1,000 miles, but 13 had crashed. Zeppelins were used to bomb England early in World War I, but they were found vulnerable to both storms and gunfire. By the time of the count's death the greater potential of the airplane as a means of flight was becoming apparent.

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