The history of blimps dates back to the year 1783. It was in this year when the Montgolfier brothers of Annonay, France sent the first hot air balloon aloft (into the air) Ever since that first balloon inventors have been trying to design better airships, or dirigibles - blimps.
The earliest blimp designs consisted of taking a round balloon and stretching it at both ends to form an egg shape. These early blimps maintained their shape by internal gas pressure and are referred to as a non-rigid blimp design. The problem was that this kind of ballon would often buckle (bend) under the strain of heavy loads or rough weather.
This problem was overcome by giving later blimps a semi-rigid design. This was done by adding a lightweight keel (a rigid frame) along the bottom of the blimp. The keel took some of the stress off of the blimp envelope (skin). This made it possible to build even larger blimps.
The next major improvements in blimp design came many years later.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, whose name became connected with blimps
throughout the world,
had the vision of a semi-rigid dirigible (airship) evolving
into one that would be known as rigid. The new design had an envelope
held rigid by a metal skeleton attached to a much bigger, stronger
keel. This rigid design freed the blimp's envelope of the need for
internal pressure to maintain its shape. This design allowed Zeppelin
to use self contained cells, filled with gas and wired into place,
instead of one large envelope. This has been the basic design of blimps
up to the present.
Blimps all have four main components (parts). They are: the envelope, the gondola, the power plant and the controls.
A blimp's envelope is the "skin" that holds the ship's contents in tact (together). Early envelopes consisted of various cloths, fabrics or silks stretched into the familiar "blimp" shape. These early envelope designs had the tendency to tear or catch fire. Today, modern materials allow for an envelope of greater strength yet lighter weight than earlier envelope materials. For example, the French firm Aerazure builds blimp envelopes by taking two layers of a synthetic (man-made) similar to Dacron and impregnates (soaks) them with titanium dioxide. A thin, strong, gas tight membrane (skin) is then sandwiched between them. Panels of this material are then stitched together into the desired blimp shape, thus creating the blimp's envelope.
The next component (part) of a blimp is a gondola. This is like a box or cabin that is attached underneath the blimp. The early, non-rigid blimps could only carry a small gondola that carried a few people. Later, when the blimps had a rigid frame, the gondola became much bigger. By the 1930's the gondolas could comfortably hold more than 100 passengers. Blimps of this era (time) were complete with gondolas containing passenger cabins, a promenade for viewing the land below, dining rooms, reading and writing rooms, complete kitchens, ;and even the first showers on board an airship. Today's typical blimp gondola is much smaller and only carries 7 or 8 passengers plus two pilots.
The power plant, or engines, of blimps is another fine example of the
progress in blimp design and development. In 1852, Henri Giffard
installed a small steam engine in the gondola of a spindle shaped
balloon. This engine turned a propeller that pulled the airship through
the air at a speed of 5 miles per hour against the wind. But, steam
engines were too big and dangerous to use. Later, in 1898, Alberto
Santos-Dumont began to experiment with gasoline engines as a power
source for balloons. On October 19, 1901 he steered his cigar-shaped
balloon over a seven mile course above Paris, France. This was very
important and the trip brought Santos-Dumont much acclaim (notice).
Today, the engines used in blimps are a much more modern version of Santos-Dumont's. Today, for example, Airship Industries Sky Ship 500 HL uses two Porsche 930 engines to push 15,000 pounds of blimp through the air at speeds up to 45 knots. Each engine is inside the gondola in a fireproof box. The engines can turn a tail rotor (propeller) or the two main five blade variable pitch propellers (propeller speed and angle may be changed). This propeller assembly rotates (turns) inside a duct, called a vector, and provides quiet, efficient thrust. Thus, the pilot may turn the propellers in the direction he wishes to go - up, down, forward. Blimps are able to move around in ways modern airships cannot.
The controls of a blimp have also seen much advancement from the early days of blimp-design. Early balloons could be steered as they went up and down (vertically), but once aloft (in the air) the prevailing (strongest) wind would take over. Several methods of steering were tried, but none of them were successful. It was Alberto Santos-Dumont, again, who gained credit for building the first dirigible that could be maneuvered (steered) forward through the air. He did this by using propellers. Soon blimps were propelled by engines and propellers and maneuvered by rudders for horizontal (forward) movement and by elevators for vertical (up and down) movement. Today's blimps are controlled in much the same way. In the early 1900's there were several successful test flights and new designs tried:
In the early days of blimp design there were many catastrophes (failures) that led to safer design standards. Early blimps suffered greatly from fire, technical problems, malfunctions and poor design. In 1921, for example, a wave of air disasters began. The British R 34, the first airship to successfully cross the Atlantic, was wrecked at its mooring. The Roma, built in 1922 by Italy for the United States, exploded over Hampton Roads, Virginia. In 1923 the French Dixmude was lost in the Mediteranean. In 1925 The United States Shenandoah was destroyed by violent winds. The United States Navy built two more airships. These were the Akron, destroyed in 1933, and the Macon, which crashed in 1935.
In the early 1900's there was great interest in the military use of blimps. Germany took the lead in blimp design through Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. During World War I the Germans used von Zeppelin's rigid blimp design to bomb London. However, when the defending British pursuit planes were able to climb to the airship's cruising altitude, the slow and cumbersome blimps proved to be easy targets.
By World War II non-rigid, helium filled balloons were being used for
patrolling, hunting submarines, and escorting convoys (groups of
ships). They were still huge targets, but almost none were shot down.
After the war blimps served other purposes for a while, but the
increasing use of helicopters and the great expense of building and
maintaining blimps eventually halted the military's use of
Early in the 1900's von Zeppelin and Alfred Colsman foresaw that blimps could be used for transportation of passengers, as well as military uses. They formed the German Airship Transport Company in 1909. This was a part of the Zeppelin Company formed in 1908 by von Zeppelin alone (and still in existence today).
Soon, a network of cities all over Germany had agreed to build airship sheds from which the passenger line could operate. There were many problems, at first, since reliable weather forecasts were not available. In the summer of 1911, during good weather, the German Airship Transport Company's LZ 10 made almost one hundred flights without one serious problem. The LZ 10's passenger gondola resembled a first-class railroad coach (car) complete with the day's finest passenger amenities (comforts).
While traveling aboard blimps in fine style became popular, the rigid design pioneered by von Zeppelin was making it possible to construct huge airships. The biggest blimp ever created was the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was 804 feet long and 135 feet at its largest diameter. This craft could lift a total weight of about 235 tons. It carried 50 passengers and a crew of 60, along with baggage, mail cargo and a heavy load of fuel. The Hindenburg was much larger than a Boeing 747 and almost as large as the Titanic! None of today's blimps are nearly as big.
On two decks of the gondola fifty passengers could live in the style and comfort of the day's most lavish hotels. Eventually, the Hindenburg would make routine crossings of the Atlantic in about 61 hours, cruising at 650 feet at about 80 miles per hour. While the promise of safe passenger airship travel seemed to have arrived, the Hindenberg, like many blimps before her, fell victim to disaster. On May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey, the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire in an attempt to land. Thirty five of the blimps 97 people on-board were killed and the history of blimp passenger transport was forever changed.
While the history of blimps is one of great change, great success and
great disasters, today's modern blimps have the reliability and services
that would make early blimp designers like Count von Zeppelin proud.
Today tiny one and two person hot air blimps are used primarily for
aerial photography. There are also the larger nine and ten person
vessels which carry passengers only for sight-seeing, or as TV camera
platforms during news and sporting events, or as flying billboards (for
In the public mind, today, blimps are linked to the popular blimps flown by the Goodyear Tire Rubber Company and are recently those flown by Fuji Camera Films. There have been no major blimp disasters in this decade. Since 1783 people's intrigue (interest) in these gigantic balloons continues and the blimp soars onward.
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