Thinking Like von Zeppelin

Ferdinand von Zeppelin was an interesting man. He caught the lighter-than-air bug as a young man, riding in observation balloons while as an observer with the Union Army during the Civil War. I’m more interested in the process and conceptual struggle it must have been to think outside the box -  creating something far greater than the sum of its parts.

To go from the experience of a tethered observation balloon or a so called “free balloon” to a “guided balloon” is huge. Just sourcing this idea is huge. Zeppelin was fortunate that he was from a wealthy, noble family and was an engineer in his own right. He hired (and sometimes fired) engineering talent. He knew Diesel and Dahlmer personally. He had trouble finding engines powerful enough to push these big ships through the atmosphere.

Aerodynamic modeling was nearly unknown in 1891, when Zeppelin retired from the military and turned his attention to lighter-than-air devices. The Wright Brothers used a wind tunnel to help them determine the best wing form, but the Wright Flyer and Kitty Hawk was over a decade away.

Zeppelin used newly available aluminum alloys. Some of his contemporary builders unsuccessfully used plywood. The Hindenburg disaster haunts me, because most of the people who died in the crash did not die of impact injuries but were terribly burned by streams of aluminum alloy made molten by the fierce heat of the oxygen-hydrogen combustion raining onto crew and passengers trapped in the doomed ship.

The exposed aluminum structure failed as the fire raged, ensuring that no true controlled emergency landing could be made. Even though helium would be the lifting gas of choice, I think any craft I would build would need to be designed for the used of either hydrogen or helium. This is my case for the use of wood laminates. If the Hindenburg had used plywood girders, or ablated the metal girders and control cables, the ship could have made a better landing with far fewer deaths and injuries.

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