Airships played a significant role in aviation history. They responded to the need to provide lighter-than-air aircraft with means for powered, controllable, and directed flight that balloons did not have. Early airships were developed at the end of the nineteenth century by aviation pioneers in several countries, most prominently in Germany and France. Coming ahead of the successful flight by controllable, powered heavier-than-air aircraft, they represented the 'state of the art' in aviation at the time.
Airships were developed in three basic forms. The non-rigid airship is basically a shaped balloon equipped with control surfaces (fins) and externally mounted engines for powered flight. Its most recognized form is the blimp, several of which exist today as observation platforms displaying prominent advertising of their owners (e.g., Goodyear, Fuji). The semi-rigid airship has a rigid keel with an envelope shape maintained by gas pressure (e.g., Norge, Roma). The rigid airship is a much larger and more complex airship. It is characterized by a rigid framework giving it a fixed shape, with the lifting gas in large inflatable cells within it (e.g., Zeppelin, Schutte-Lanz). Power is from multiple propeller-equipped engines mounted on external nacelles.
While numerous nations engaged in airship development, only Germany developed the airship at the commercial level. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin flew his first dirigible airship in July 1900. The name "zeppelin" has been given generic status over time as a reference to any of the large dirigible airships of the period 1900–1937, particularly those built by the Zeppelin Company (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin). During the late 1920s and through most of the 1930s, German zeppelins made hundreds of successful flights, many in commercial transatlantic service. Airships from Great Britain, the United States, and Italy also flew mail. Most zeppelin flights carried mail which documents the development and operations of the airship era.
Harold G. Dick with Douglas H Robinson, The Golden Age of Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg (Washington DC: 1985).
John Duggan, LZ129 Hindenburg - The Complete Story and Zeppelinpost: LZ129 Hindenburg (Ickenham GB: 2002, 2004).
John Duggan and Jim Graue, Commercial Zeppelin Flights to South America (Valleyford WA: 1995).
Arthur Falk, Hindenburg Crash Mail: The Search Goes On (New York: 1976).
Michel Zeppelin- und Flugpost-Spezial-Katalog 2002 (2nd ed.) (München, Germany, 2002).
Sieger Zeppelinpost Spezial-Katalog (22nd ed.) (Lorch: Germany, 2001).
J. Gordon Vaeth, Graf Zeppelin: The Adventures of an Aerial Globetrotter (NY: Harper, 1958).