Origins of the Airship

Our book Airships vs. Submarines covers the evolution of the airship in relation to its more popular and well-financed non-identical twin, the submarine. On this page, currently under construction, we will give a very brief overview of the parallel evolution of the two displacement vessels.

The mid-1700s saw a published account detailing a craft using a number of goatskins built into the hull, the first approach to controlling a boat’s buoyant condition.  About the same time came notation that other goatskins filled with Paracelsus’ ‘inflammable air’ weighed less when full than when the bags were empty. Shortly the Russian invention “Gull” probably met the definition of a demonstrable sub-marine boat, while the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon was owed not only to Professor Charles’ hydrogen production, but Robert’s fabric that more effectively contained the gas.

With moving up or down in the respective oceans then somewhat possible, following course along a horizontal direction was the next challenge. French General Jean-Baptiste Maire Meusnier, having investigated the fabric stresses imposed by the gas pressure and weights,  proposed a streamlined balloon and car, with most of the features of a modern pressure airship (illustration). This came just a few decades after the American Turtle attempted to attack an anchored British warship. Both vehicles lacked practical propulsion; designs proposed, or actually employed, human power.


American Robert Fulton, working in France, “was unquestionably the first one to design a practical vessel capable of submerging and rising at will,” its two-man powerplant switching to sail on the surface.   A few decades later Frenchman Henri Giffard, using his breakthrough three horsepower, 400-lb. steam engine,  drove his 144-foot football-shaped hydrogen bag against a slight wind.

The American War Between the States was the mother of invention, providing the next steps for both technologies. A Confederate human-powered boat operated awash killed several of its crews before eventually sinking an anchored Union warship, though unable to escape itself. Meanwhile, a Union balloonist was expanding observation with a portable hydrogen generator that could move with the Army, the Federals chose to ignore the invention of Dr. Solomon Andrews, an airship that actually made progress against the wind without human power.


The two vessel concepts, envisioned for their specific mediums, continued to trade leads towards practicality in the later half of the nineteenth century, which witnessed the first deaths by both the bends and anoxia via these early vehicles.

The 1880s saw the first launch of the previously developed torpedo, from a steam-powered submarine boat built by Swede Thorsten Nordenfelt, as well as the first round trip by an airship, the electric-powered La France. Not surprisingly two French Captains, Renard and Krebs, worked on both submarine boats and airships, earning a mention by novelist Jules Verne.

Electric submarine boats’ need to recharge limited them to harbor defense. Both vehicles awaited motivation from something with more horsepower per pound, powered by a fuel with more energy per unit of measure. More practical horsepower-per-pound arrived in 1885 with Gottlieb Daimler’s high-speed benzene-powered engine, and by 1888 fellow German Wolfert had applied it to motivating his airship designs.


Irish-American John Holland tried to interest the US Navy in his plunging boat design as Hungarian David Swartz got the Prussian balloon corps to test his motorized rigid airship. That first rigid made one flight and was wrecked upon landing, while the first Holland boat in the US Navy sank at the pier. One was repaired; the other was not.

The century’s turn would herald developments both below and above the surface as both vehicles approached practicality.

Read on to Save the Observation Balloons!


Read on to The USN and the Rigid Airship


Read on to The Graf Zeppelin

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