The Zeppelin

Zeppelinby Michael Belafi


“He sensed the fantastic possibilities offered by a steerable balloon in the future. He later wrote to his father: ‘While I hovered over St. Paul [Minnesota], the idea of air navigation struck me.’

However, he knew—Steiner had explained this to him in detail over many conversations—that the current state of science and technology were still miles away from the solution of the problem of steering a balloon.”



All Zeppelins are airships but not every airship is a Zeppelin! The man whose name has been appropriated for an entire category of flying apparatus was set on this particular path literally by accident, a riding accident that put him into bed, where, plagued by delirious fever, he mumbled about flying ships. Once recovered, and already quite late in life, he hung up his spurs, again literally, and embarked on an entirely new venture. Which took another quarter century to come to fruition.

The quote above is from 1863 so the good Count had airships on his brain for a while. That first flight of his was in a captive balloon and it just so happened that right around the time of his accident a book about airship travel had been published and one of the first copies been given to Zeppelin by a fellow officer to distract him from his misery.

A very great deal has been written about Zeppelin, already in his lifetime. This book by German author Belafi tells a nicely detailed story and adds a few new facets to its early stages. One would be an explanation of the role of the Prussian Aeronautical Department, an elite unit adhering to such strict secrecy that Belafi argues, “Surprisingly its role in the solution of the problem of the motor-based airship is entirely underestimated within the relevant literature, wrongly interpreted or entirely negated.” This was the outfit that evaluated Zeppelin’s first proposal, its members and advisers pronouncing it dead on arrival but its leader encouraging further study. Which introduces a second element Belafi is anxious to have the historic record consider in a different light, professor Carl von Bach who taught engineering: “In stark contrast to Bach’s outstanding role in the Zeppelin project, his person never received the accordant recognition in the entire Zeppelin literature. Most often he is not even mentioned.”

Belafi (b. 1948) has grappled with this subject since the 1980s and published other work on Zeppelin/s. As there is no Introduction to the book and the Impressum page doesn’t mention it, the dust jacket referring to this book as “new” is ambiguous: it is new inasmuch as it is the first English version of a book published in 2012 in German by Motorbuch Verlag (ISBN 978-3613034099). For what it’s worth, that version’s landscape format worked well with the illustrations. That said, the English version is at 8½ x 11″ positively “oversized” in comparison to this publisher’s usual smallish offerings.

At school, Zeppelin’s teachers’ verdict was: “No outstanding abilities as an engineer.” He wouldn’t have argued; it was as an inspirational leader and team builder that he achieved his monumental task. The titles of chapters 3 and 4 aptly encapsulate Zeppelin’s career as an airship builder, “How Zeppelin Turned from Fool to National Hero” and “The Brutalisation of Zeppelin’s Work.” A closing chapter deals with the modern-day Zeppelin “NT” and the CL160 cargolifter project, the latter very much deserving of its own book and oddly reminiscent of the old Count’s struggles to gain traction.

Splendidly illustrated (photos, drawings, facsimiles of flyers, brochures etc.) this book tells a lucid story (good translation, too). A math/physics teacher by trade, Belafi had access to Zeppelin’s archives and the collaboration of and input from many in the airship community.


Copyright 2016, Sabu Advani (

The Zeppelin
by Michael Belafi
Pen and Sword, 2015
240 pages, b/w illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $50 / £30
ISBN-13: 978-1473827851

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