Zeppelin and His Achievement

[The Nation; March 15, 1917]

Count Zeppelin was a standing refutation of the charge that a man's constructive genius fades with fifty. He was a lieutenant-general fifty-two years old when, he gave up a brilliant military career in order to devote himself to the mad theory he stuck to despite ridicule unending—that aerial navigation could be solved by means of a great dirigible balloon. As a German military attaché "with the Federal forces in 1863-65, Count Zeppelin had proved himself a daring officer, and what he learned of the cavalry tactics of Sheridan, Stuart, Mosby, and others was doubtless responsible for a military achievement of his—a daring cavalry reconnaissance in force, in the war of 1870-71, which first won him national renown. But when it came to his aerial theories, people avoided him as a crank, and in the years of experimenting which followed he gradually sacrificed not only his own very considerable patrimony, but all the money he could obtain, from confiding friends and relatives. For years it seemed a crazy quest. As late as 1900 people viewed his experiments skeptically, and concluded that, though it began to look as if the technical difficulties in the way could possibly be surmounted, the cost of such airships seemed an insuperable obstacle.

Six years later the remaining difficulties had been overcome, and all Germany was thrilled by the proved success of the inventor, who was then in his sixty-eighth year. Yet many mishaps occurred after that. In the winter of 1908 he built his fourth aircraft, in which he made two memorable voyages, one of twelve hours from Lake Constance to Zürich and return, and one from Friedrichshafen to Strassburg, Mainz, and Stuttgart, ending with another disaster and the destruction of the vessel at Echterdingen. Here the German people came to his rescue, and by a national collection easily raised in the popular enthusiasm for his epoch-making achievement, made it possible for him to continue. No less than $1,540,000 was subscribed, and the Government itself aided thereafter liberally in the belief that a new war-weapon of extraordinary power had been developed, of especial value to a fleet at sea. From that time on Count Zeppelin was Germany's greatest national hero, until Hindenburg supplanted him.

It is the fashion, now that war has come, to speak of the utter failure of the Zeppelin, and the statement is even made that it was a realisation of this failure which hastened the inventor's end. That is a mistake. The Zeppelin has been a disappointment as a war-weapon in that its value as an air-scout has been surpassed by the cheap and quickly constructed airplane, which costs only two lives if it falls or is shot down. As a raider, too, the usefulness of the great Zeppelin dirigible seems largely to have gone, in view of the effective defence now built up against it in both London and Paris. To avoid anti-aircraft guns the Zeppelin must fly so high as to make careful aiming impossible—which is also the difficulty with the heavier-than-air machine. Still, to have carried out forty-eight raids on British territory is a most extraordinary achievement, even though it may have cost some six or seven Zeppelins. Meanwhile, every one must rejoice that so inhumane and undiscriminating a weapon of war has not only virtually failed but shocked humanity by the evidence that its victims are more often innocent women and children than soldiers. Had the Zeppelins appeared over London in the first week of the war they might have done great damage, for a few months earlier a British officer had pointed out in a service publication that there was not a single anti-aircraft gun mounted in London, and that a Zeppelin flying low could demolish the War Office and the Admiralty and absolutely paralyze the British army and navy, since there were no duplicate records anywhere else and no one would have known the next morning where the units of the army were stationed! When war came Germany had at least eight commercial and naval Zeppelins, and the failure to send them to England immediately after the declaration of hostilities is one of the many things that the General Staff must explain when peace comes.

But if the Zeppelin has been 90 per cent a failure as a war-craft, it must not be forgotten that Count Zeppelin's chief hope for it was as a commercial venture. His greatest ambition was to fly across the Atlantic, and what pleased him most was that some of his commercial ships made as many as 500 voyages each without accident, without loss of life, and with amazing regularity of schedule. His hopes surely lay along pacific rather than warlike lines. But here, too, there are great problems. For, though the Zeppelins have little trouble in the air, and weather great storms better and better their motor-power increases, it is difficult for them to make a landing. In Germany there are always plenty of soldiers on hand to catch the ropes, but when hovering over the ground in a heavy wind the situation is always a precarious one, for even if the landing is at the entrance to one of their great sheds, the task of getting them into it is tremendous. Most of those lost in Germany have been wrecked in landing. When it is remembered that these vessels are now said to be 700 feet long—the older ones ranged from 450 to 500 feet—the man-power needed to control them when not in motion is vast indeed. Still there must be large hopes that the Count's remarkable discovery, achieved by such amazing pertinacity and courage in the face of discouragements likely to daunt the stoutest heart, will yet be worked out so that the transatlantic air-liner will become a great and useful and civilizing achievement of human genius.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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