This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Art of Zeppelins

18 September 2021

It was a warm mid-summer evening. Strung out along the lake shoreline of Manzell, a village on the outskirts of Friedrichschafen, Germany were thousands of people waiting patiently to see the great airship of Graf Zeppelin. For over two years the construction activity on Lake Constance, the Bodensee, had sparked curiosity. What was he building? Why was it inside that floating barn? Was it really a flying machine? 

Already three days of rain had delayed this first test flight. Just the evening before, a few people got a glimpse of it when a motorboat pulled the airship's docking raft out from the immense shed that anchored out in the lake. For a few minutes the giant airship floated about 12 feet above the water but to the disappointment of the onlookers it was taken back in again because of the shifting weather. 

Finally in the late afternoon of 2 July 1900, Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin decided that the weather conditions were now acceptable. At 7:30 pm the crowd watched as a huge cylindrical craft emerged from the barn and slowly rose to about 30 meters. On board were five men, including Graf Zeppelin, who gave their equipment a final check. Then at 8:03 the Graf called down to his crew on the raft to cast off.  

Zeppelin LZ-1
Source: Wikimedia

Immediately there was a problem with the release of the mooring cables as one line became entangled with a propeller, and the pitch mechanism was fowled. After a few tense moments to reestablish a level position the airship moved off with the wind and ascended. But then one of the two benzine engines failed and the command was given to descend to the lake surface where a motor launch towed the crippled airship back to the shed dock. It was now 8:20 pm.

For just 17 minutes, Graf Zeppelin's experimental airship, the LZ-1, flew through the air traveling about 3½ miles. On that day in July 1900, five men reached an altitude of 410 m (1,350 ft), a little more than three times the length of their craft. Though it was not a complete success, Zeppelin had proved that his invention could fly and was steerable. Now he would need to make repairs and corrections before his machine could attempt another test flight. 

First flight of Graf Zeppelin's LZ-1, 2 July 1900

For the people who witnessed the first flight of the LZ-1 it was only a brief few minutes of wonder. The danger and excitement of this experiment in powered human flight was reassuring. But the notion was enough to inspire an artist to make a watercolor of this amazing flying machine, even if he took some liberties with the lighting and exaggerated the length of the airship. 

Six days later on 8/7/1900, Otto Dorsch(?) of  Feurbach, near Stuttgart, bought this postcard of the LZ-1 to send a friendly greeting to Ernst Schwarzlander of Nürnberg. What did Ernst think to see this picture?
Not everyone shared Count Zepplin's enthusiasm for air travel. Some people considered his airship a folly, an expensive waste of time and effort that would never be practicable or profitable. Some newspapers labeled it a failure and reported on critics who thought Zeppelin's approach was wrong and doomed to fail. Others jumped onto the fantastic idea of flight and called it a success, even exaggerating the distance that the airship covered to 35 miles.

Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917) was very familiar with Lake Constance, or the Bodensee as it is known in Germany, as he was born in Konstanz on the western side of the lake. As a young man he decided on a military career in the army of Württemberg. In 1863, having reached the rank of lieutenant, he was sent to America as a military observer of the Union Army during the American Civil War. During General McClellan's Peninsular Campaign, Lt. Zeppelin visited a reconnaissance balloon camp and met Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, an aeronaut, scientist, and inventor who is considered the father of military aerial reconnaissance in the United States. A short time later while traveling in the Midwest, Zeppelin encountered a German-born balloonist, John Steiner, who offered to take him on a balloon ascent from a site in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. These chance meetings inspired Ferdinand von Zeppelin to pursue his idea of building a steerable, self-propelled balloon. 

The French Dirigible, La France, 9 August 1884
Source: Wikipedia

The first controlled lighter-than-air flight was made in 9 August 1884 by a non-rigid airship called La France. At 51m (168 ft) long and with a diameter of 8.4 m (27 ft 6 in), it was created for the French army by Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs. On its maiden flight, La France, with its crew of two men, completed a round trip of 8 km (5.0 mi), returning to its starting point in 23 minutes. During the years 1884 to 1885, the French airship made seven successful flights and was later exhibited at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, site of the now iconic  Eiffel Tower.

This was the foreign competition that in 1891 inspired Zeppelin, now age 52, to resign from the army and dedicate all his attention into developing a steerable German airship. He sought financial backers and with the help of the King of Württemberg, he formed a company and hired engineers to turn his ideas into a workable machine, the LZ-1.   

Unfortunately after that first brief flight in July 1900, the repairs and modifications to the LZ-1 delayed the next trial until September, when once again, another accident forced more delay. Then on 17 October Count Zeppelin undertook a second flight where , despite some problems, traveled twice as far as the first flight, 6.8 miles, and stayed aloft for 1 hour, 20 minutes. Unfortunately the landing caused some light damage but repairs were quickly completed to make a 3rd flight on 21 October. This time Zeppelin's airship made three successful accents and descents and it responded to more positive control.  It landed without incident and was returned to its floating hanger.

The LZ-1 was stored for the winter, but in January 1901 a violent storm damaged the hanger, ripping open the side of the airship, badly twisting the framework. By May newspapers around the world reported that Count Zeppelin's company was forced to liquidate its assets. The LZ-1 was sold for scrap. 

{For a more complete history on the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin 1, (LZ-1) as well as
other history of lighter-than-air aviation, I recommend this website:}

Yet Ferdinand persisted and found another engineer to redesign his next airship. It would take five more years, but in January 1906 he released the LZ-2 which became the model for all of Zeppelin's future airships. Unfortunately, despite some success, this second ship had a short life. It was closely followed by the LZ-3 which made its maiden flight in October 1906, and continued making many long distance flights, often with passengers like the German Crown Prince, until its retirement in 1913. 

My particular interest in zeppelins is in the art of airships found on postcards during this pioneering era of flight. This was a few years before the advent of heavier-than-air aviation, as the Wright brothers did not demonstrate their first practical airplane until 1908 when they brought it to France and then Germany. Before their American flying machine, the real marvel of the air was the German zeppelin. That was the future of powered flight. 


The reason that Count Zeppelin used Lake Constance for his airship's tests was primarily for safety. The airship was constructed with polygonal aluminum framing that supported 17 gas cells made from rubberized cotton to provide lift from hydrogen, a very explosive gas. Two 14.2 hp benzine engines powered four propellers on either side of the cylindrical superstructure. As a test site, the lake provided more predictable winds and was clear of any obstacles. And in case of a crash, boats were able to arrive faster on water than wagons on land. Count Zeppelin and his engineers were testing a technology that came without a manual. Constructing a lighter-than-air machine was only part of the challenge. Learning how to operate in the sky's three dimensions was a far more difficult experiment. How would an airship behave in strong wind? How would the hydrogen gas react to heat or cold as the craft ascended and descended? How much power was needed to maneuver this huge cylinder and point it to where you wanted to go? These were just a few questions that could only be answered by test flights.

Here Graf Zeppellin's lenkbares Luftschiff - steerable airship, is depicted flying over Bregenz, Austria which is at the southeast end of Lake Constance, about 18 miles from Friedrichshafen. The artist created a birds-eye view which gives the zeppelin a dramatic perspective over the city. This postcard was sent to Herrn Victor Streichert of Graz, Austria with an Austrian postmark of 1 October 1901 which is a curious date. By the end of 1901, Zeppellin's company had dissolved and the LZ-1 taken apart for scrap. And the LZ-1 had never flown so far as Bregenz. This illustration was probably made the previous year when the townsfolk of Bregenz had optimistically promoted airship travel over the Bodensee, and no doubt consider Graf Zeppelin a second cousin if not son. 

* * *

In this next postcard illustration Graf Zeppelin's Luftschiff is in voller Fahrt - full speed over an unnamed city whose inhabitants are cheering it along. Much like a whale, a zeppelin was clearly a wonder just because of its great size. How could something so large stay up in the air? The early designs had only two propellers, or screws as they were often called then, on each side of the airship. From the ground they were too small to see and actually had difficulty pushing the craft so the zeppelin moved rather slowly. The LZ-1 had a calculated maximum speed of only 27 km/h (17 mph). The engines on the LZ-2 and LZ-3 increased in horsepower by nearly 6 times more, but still their best speed was a leisurely 40 km/h (25 mph). But I think the pedestrian pace gave the airships a less threatening appearance and made them more acceptable to a skeptical public.

This postcard was sent with a message hand-dated 1 June 1904 to a young lady in Duisburg, Germany a city situated at the junction of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. This is four years after the flight of LZ-1 and a year and a half before LZ-2 would take its first flight in January 1906.

* * *

On this next postcard a clever but unknown artist places four modes of modern transportation in the picture. Along side a narrow river, a street car passes under a stout railway bridge on which a steam train pulls along a set of passenger cars. In the foreground an amazing tram runs above the river suspended on a monorail supported by steel girders. And high in the sky is a zeppelin. The caption reads: "Z. III." in voller Fahrt über der Sonnborner Brücke. 4 Verkehrsmittel überinander. – Z-3 at full speed over the Sonnborn bridge. 4 modes of transport on top of each other. 

The Wuppertal Schwebebahn
Source: Wikipedia

The tram is the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world. This single line system has twenty stops linking the cities of Barmen, Elberfeld and Vohwinkel and the first section of track opened in 1901. The Schwebebahn is credited with helping these industrial cities grow and merge into the greater city of Wuppertal in 1929. The system was destroyed during WW2 but rebuilt and modernized with updated cars that still follow the same route 12 m (39 ft) above the River Wupper. 

The card has a postmark from Barmen, but the date may be in error, as the numbers are 31.10.01 8-9 or 31 October 1901 8-9 hour. But the LZ-3 made its first flight in October 1906 and the Wuppertal Schwebebahn only began operations in 1901. So I think it is more likely a misprint and dates from 1907.


* * *


The next postcard is a kind of classical style painting mixed with absurd concept. A small group of German villagers are standing by a dirt road. In the sky are five zeppelins, one labeled Z.III. The caption reads:
Bilder aus dem Volksleben des Schwarzwalds

Jokel: Hannes komm m'r ganget hoim, mir kommts vor, dia wöllet auf unsere Dreispitz landa!

Hannes: Du hast recht Jokel, komm no schnell!

Amel: Dass i' aber au' des verleba muss, was thät do d'r Aehne saga!
Pictures from popular life in the Black Forest

Jokel:  Hannes come to me ganget hoim(?), it seems to me, she wants to land on our three-cornered hat!

Hannes: You're right Jokel, come on quickly!

Amel: But then I have to lay down what the ancestors do saga! (?)

This is obviously some lighthearted satirical humor in a German dialect about the proliferation of flying machines upsetting simple rural folk. But we in the 21st century can still understand the point: 'Those new fangled vehicles are annoying and make life difficult.'

This postmark is dated 4 September 1912 from Hirsau, a district of the town of Calw in the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

* * *

Germans have always been proud of their postal service. (And most of the postcards featured in this story have taken advantage of it again in this century when I've purchased them from German postcard dealers.) In this postcard illustration a group of German postmen, identified by the posthorn over one man's shoulder, look skyward at a zeppelin stenciled with Flug Post - Flight Post. In the background are a few spherical balloons, on the ground is a motorized postal van, and in between is a bird-like monoplane. In the corner are heraldic badges of a posthorn and a winged coach wheel, a symbol for railway service.

This card has a postcard from Berlin S.W. with the lucky date of 12.12.12. 12-1N. And by coincidence for me, it is addressed to Herrn A. Groste(?) a Musiker.  At the time the notion that letters and packages could be carried by aircraft seemed a pipedream. But with the advent of both zeppelins and aeroplanes, rapid airmail delivery became a distinct possibility.  

* * *


My last example of zeppelin art is a postcard painted by Anton Hoffman of München. It shows a mounted troop of hussars or uhlans chasing an automobile which follows a zeppelin high on the horizon. It's a beautiful classical composition with wonderful horses and lots of movement as the soldiers gallop toward the airship. It's a clash of the past and the future, the gallant cavalrymen versus the impersonal modern machine. 

The card was sent to Hella Westphal (?) in Bramstedt, a village in Lower Saxony, and is hand dated 22 October 1911. A printed caption on the back marks the card as a souvenir for the Crown Prince's and Crown Princess's Foundation for the German Kriegerbundes - Warrior League.  


For ages beyond ages, man looked to the sky as the realm of clouds and birds. Man might rule the land and master the oceans, at least on the surface, but the air was only for winged creatures. Then within a decade, balloons, dirigibles, zeppelins, and then airplanes conquered the laws of physics and gave humankind a new perspective on the sky. With the help of these marvelous machines we could fly with the birds. 

How did it feel to first see a zeppelin float among the clouds? Amazing? Frightening? Awesome? This was a new kind of wonder that few people had ever imagined. It was not like a faster steamship or more powerful locomotive. This required accepting a seemingly impossible thing, lighter-than-air, as a new reality. It was more than trusting in an unfamiliar science. It was believing with your own eyes that someone was flying safely through the sky. Who wouldn't want to see that for themselves? Or maybe one day even travel through the sky yourself. How exciting would that be?

Lately the world has been distracted by several new ideas of flight — space flight. Billionaire entrepreneurs of our 21st century have invested gazillions of dollars in building rocket ships that will take ordinary folk on out-of-this-world tours beyond planet Earth. Tickets will be pretty pricey. The competitive hype tries to market these novel spacecraft into modern marvels not unlike the zeppelins did. But I think our century has lost that true sense of wonder that existed in the world of 1900. People back then were more trusting of new things. Many people today have that more skepticism and mistrust in technology. It's a risky business. Rocket ships can crash. And what about the aliens?  Will there be postcards too?

Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a remarkable aviation pioneer who deserves better recognition. He had the good fortune to have a splendid surname that inspired the eponymous name of zeppelin for an airship. During his long career developing these rigid airships, his company built over 130 zeppelins, 25 of which were made prior to World War 1. Sadly in 1914 it was his misfortune to see his airship turn into a new weapon of war, one that would drastically alter the peaceful impression of airships seen in these postcards. That is another postcard story about the art of zeppelins which I hope to tell on some future sepia weekend.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday

where X² + Y² = Z²


Kathy said...

I was forever slipping papers under the door of my professors as the clock struck. Last week, I didn’t get my post up until Tuesday, I think, and you paid me a visit. Thank you.
That said, this was another interesting, as well as timely, post with the new “tourist astronauts” returning from orbit as you were writing. Your postcard collection never fails.

smkelly8 said...

I never thought of a country being proud of their post office services. Kudos to Germany. These are gems.

DawnTreader said...

Impressive collection of Zeppelin postcards! :o
Somewhere recently (I think Youtube shared on Facebook) I also saw a video of a Schwebebahn (it may have been the Wuppertal one), cleverly done as they had both adapted an old film from 100+ years ago and added a modern film of the same views.

Barbara Rogers said...

Yes, I can imagine how ordinary people were shocked to see these airships flying overhead. When I lived on the Atlantic coast I saw a Goodyear Blimp traveling up the coast, over the water, probably going to view a sporting event. Even today, the quietness of these huge machines, compared to helicopters and planes, is amazing; though I could hear their little propeller as it went by pretty close to us. I saw a Black Hawk (I think) flying just over the treetops over US 70 the other day, silently flying. I remembered someone saying they had a whisper mode. But it could have been another type.

Molly of Molly's Canopy said...

A wonderful post and some truly amazing postcards. The artwork is exceptional, particularly those cards with several aircraft on them. My personal favorite is the four modes of transportation on one card -- and congrats on working the bridge prompt into that one! I would have loved to be around when these zeppelins were moving across the skies. And I'm not sure that we've become jaded by air travel. I live within viewing distance of the Bronx, and I'm always in awe of the Goodyear Blimp when it appears above a Yankees home game.

La Nightingail said...

When I was growing up in the East Bay Area of San Francisco Bay, we used to see a blimp pass by overhead every once in a while. They had a distinctive sound you could hear from a long way off. We'd all run outside to watch it fly over. I haven't seen one in person in years. Come to think of it, I don't even see them on TV hovering near a football stadium during a game anymore, either. We get overhead views of the city where the game is being played by other hovering things now, I guess. Kind of a shame. I miss the familiar sight of the old Goodyear blimp cruising around above the game! :)


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