Today, see if you can guess our mystery inventor.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
cavalry officer came to America from Germany in
1863 as a foreign observer of the Union Army. He
was a Prussian nobleman, and when I say his name,
you'll all recognize it. But first, I want to tell
you about his adventure here.
He narrowly escaped capture by Lee's Army in
Virginia. He watched draft riots in New York. He
flirted with young ladies on a Great Lakes boat
from Cleveland, Ohio, to Superior, Wisconsin. He
ate muskrat and hunted with Indians. His long
odyssey eventually brought him to the International
Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Just across the street from his hotel, a balloonist
named John Steiner was offering rides in his
observation balloon. Steiner had flown for the
Union Army as a civilian observer. Steiner's work
probably saved McClellan's Army from defeat in
1862. But he'd quit the Army in a dispute over pay
and gone barnstorming.
Our German officer decided to add a balloon ride to
his American adventure. Steiner sent him up on a
solo flight at the end of a seven-hundred-foot
tether rope. The young man wrote a formal
letter-report about the experience. Outwardly it
was straightforward reporting of the military
potential of observation balloons. But between the
lines bubbled a barely controlled excitement.
He returned to Germany in 1870, while his Minnesota
experience festered. Finally, in 1891, he retired
as a brigadier general and devoted himself to
lighter-than-air flight. He tried, without success,
to interest the German army in its potential.
By then, many people had built rigid navigable
balloons -- or dirigibles. The French experimenter
Giffard had flown the first successful one in
Paris, eleven years before that balloon ride in St
Paul. But no one had yet made a commercially viable
But the name of
our German officer was Count Ferdinand von
Zeppelin. And Zeppelin took up
dirigible-building just after his sixtieth
birthday. He flew his first airship in 1900.
Zeppelin managed to synthesize all the elements
other inventors had been identifying down through
the nineteenth century. He lived and worked another
fourteen years, creating the grandest machines in
the air. The spectacular Zeppelin airships
continued to dazzle the world until the whole
technology went up in flames with the Hindenburg at
Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937.
And we're left with the astounding fact that the
seed for all this European high technology had been
sown in Western America just after the Civil War.
Shortly before he died, Zeppelin wrote,
While I was above St. Paul I had my first idea
of aerial navigation strongly impressed on me and
it was there that [the idea of] my Zeppelins came
Perhaps Zeppelin was so successful just because he
was fulfilling a dream as atavistic as Daedalus and
Icarus. Those great graceful whales in the sky had
literally gestated throughout Zeppelin's entire
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Crouch, T.D., The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of
the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
Some websites giving biographical information on
This site includes an image of Zeppelin's first dirigible patent.
This is a considerably reworked version of
An artist for the 1910 Century Magazine
imagines Zeppelin travel in 1915
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.