As with hot air balloons, the history of airships begins in France. A French officer named Meusnier devised an airship based on hot air balloon technology and the ability to navigate. It was created in 1783 following the appearance of the hot air balloon. He designed an airship with an elongated envelope, propellers, and a rudder in 1784, unlike today’s blimp. However, Meusnier never constructed the airship he drew for his idea.
Another Frenchman, an engineer named Henri Giffard, built the first practical airship in 1852. It was driven by a three-horsepower steam engine weighing 350 lb (160 kg) and flew at 6 miles per hour (9 km/h). Giffard’s airship managed to lift off, but it could not be fully controlled. La France, the first successfully navigated airship, was built in 1884 by two more Frenchmen, Renard and Krebs. Its pilots completely controlled la France, thanks to its electrically-driven airscrew with a nine hp capacity. It flew at a speed of 15 mph (24 km/h).
Germany’s David Schwarz built the first distinctly rigid airship in 1895. As a result of his design, Count Zeppelin built the zeppelin, the first rigid airship. The zeppelin was powered by two 15 horsepower engines and flew at 25 mph (42 km/h). During World War I, Germany gained a significant military advantage due to the creation of more than 20 such vessels. Germany’s success inspired the British Royal Navy to use zeppelins as military reconnaissance aircraft to develop its aircraft. Instead of replicating the German rigid airship design, the British built several small non-rigid balloons. During World War II, these airships were used to detect German submarines and were known as “British Class B” airships. This may be the origin of the term blimp — “Class B” plus limp or non-rigid.
The United States, Britain, and Germany focused on developing large, rigid airships carrying passengers in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast to Britain and Germany, the United States used helium primarily for their airships. The US has small helium reserves within its natural gas deposits, which are quite costly to produce but not flammable like hydrogen. The United States banned the export of helium to other countries because of its high price, forcing Germany and Britain to use the more volatile hydrogen gas. The heyday of the large passenger-carrying airship came to an abrupt end after hydrogen instead of helium was used in many ships, resulting in major losses of life.
The Akron went down in a violent storm off the New Jersey coast. The disaster claimed 73 lives, more than twice as many as the crash of the Hindenburg. The USS Akron, a 785-foot dirigible, was in its third year of flight when a violent storm sent it crashing tail-first into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after midnight on April 4, 1933.
The Blimp was in temporary free flight in excess of five miles from ground zero when it collapsed from the shock wave of the blast. The airship was unmanned and was used in military effects experiments. Navy personnel on the ground in the vicinity of the experimental area were unhurt.