Zeppelin, Count Ferdinand von (1838–1917), a German army officer and originator of large rigid airships with multiple-balloon gas compartments. His dirigibles became known as Zeppelins and gained him world fame.
Zeppelin was born at Konstanz, or Constance, in southwestern Germany. When 20 years old he was commissioned an army lieutenant. During the American Civil War, while serving as a German observer with the Union Army, Zeppelin made his first balloon ascent, and became interested in aeronautics. Returning to duty in Europe, he served in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) as a cavalry officer. In 1891 Zeppelin retired with the rank of general and devoted his full time to the development of airships.
His first dirigible, L U -I, flew on July 2, 1900, from a floating hangar on Lake Constance. The rigid craft was 420 feet (128 m) long with a diameter of 38 feet (11.5 m). Lifted by hydrogen and powered by two 16-horsepower engines, it approached a speed of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), stayed aloft 20 minutes, then crashed.
Further experiments used up his fortune, but public gifts and government subsidies enabled him to build reasonably successful craft by 1908–09. In World War I Germany used Zeppelins for bombing raids and sea patrol, but with limited success because they were easily damaged by antiaircraft fire. After the war the Zeppelin Construction Works built airships for transoceanic service. The last Zeppelin, the Hindenburg , was destroyed by fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 and plans for further use of this type of airship were abandoned.