Count von Zeppelin joined the Army at 16 and earned his commission by the time he was 20. Five years later, as a military observer for the King of Württemburg, he traveled with the Union Army during the American Civil War. It was in that service that the young count had gone aloft in military observation balloons.
During Zeppelin's military career, he fought in the Seven-Weeks War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), serving in the armies of Württemburg, Prussia and Imperial Germany. In 1890, Zeppelin retired from military service as a brigadier of cavalry, but the 52 year old count was not ready to retire completely. He had been nursing a dream since 1874 of giant flying 'ships' plying the 'oceans of air.' He became a tireless champion of lighter-than-air aircraft.
By the late 1800s, people were attaching motors and propellers to balloons in order to travel at will. Makers of engine-powered lighter-than-air craft quickly encountered a technological ceiling. Lifting more powerful engines and heavier loads, required a much larger gas envelope. To attain any speed faster than a crawl, the larger envelope had to be fashioned into sleek aerodynamic shapes with small frontal area. These long, thin 'sausage' shapes tended to be highly unstable. Slight changes in the craft's center of gravity could cause the larger volumes of hydrogen to shift wildly -- sometimes with tragic results.
Zeppelin's design broke that technological barrier and made his name a synonym for the airship. His solution contained the hydrogen in separate 'cells' all within a long, thin, light-weight metal frame covered with stretched fabric. His first rigid airship, the Luftshiff Zeppelin 1 , made its initial flight in July 1900. While not perfect, the LZ 1 impressed some people with the potential of airships. Many remained skeptics.
Despite numerous setbacks and outright disasters, Count von Zeppelin persevered. His persistence and determination transformed him into a national hero. The Kaiser bestowed upon Zeppelin the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, an order usually reserved for high nobility. His airships caught the popular imagination such that the 'Zeppelin' became an icon for national pride. In 1908, The Imperial German government bought the LZ 3 and gave it the army designation of Z 1. Airplanes were still flimsy and extremely limited. Zeppelin's airships had an enormous performance advantage.
By 1914, Germany had the largest fleet of airships of any nation. While impressive, the airship's performance advantage over airplanes had all but disappeared. Over 100 airships were used by Germany during the Great War for reconnaissance and bombing. Those chores shifted to airplanes later in the war.
Count von Zeppelin died in 1917 without seeing his vision of regular airship passenger lines come to reality. Only in the 1930s did the 'Zeppelin' have its brief days of glory.