Airships to 1918

"Triumph & Tragedy, the airship story to 1918"

A most interesting evening was had by members and visitors at a talk by David Bushby on his interest in airships and "The Triumph and Tragedy, the airship story to 1018"
in the development and use of airships with notes on the early balloonists and airship builders.

David Bushby brought an interesting collection of items about airships, toys from long ago,even a blow up model airship, and many postcards and our members were allowed to browse though his postcard album. Only a small number of pioneers and incidents are given below from a very well researched talk with both his illustrations and his display of postcards. His introduction to early British pioneers was informative as most members did not know their names.


The start of lighter than air vehicles. Paper Balloons.

Toy balloons were used hundreds of years ago for amusement in China and were called sky lanterns or Kongming Lantern. According to historical records, the inventor of hot-air balloon was Zhuge Liang (181-234), a noted politician and strategist of the Three Kingdoms Period. (Zhuge Liang was also known as Zhuge Kongming).

In the Yuan Dynasty, the hot-air balloon became popular throughout the country, and during festivals such balloons were launched, which attracted huge crowds of viewers. Joseph Needham noted that the invention of paper in China was several centuries earlier than its use in other countries; with paper people made lanterns, and some lanterns with very small hole in the upper part would rise and even float in the air due to the strong light and heat.

This Chinese industry of hot air lanterns exists to today, and these imported lanterns could be bought in UK but are now deemed a fire hazard.


Early ballooning.

There is a dispute between France and Brazil over the first hot air balloon.

1709, August 8 : Brazilian-Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão made a presentation of a hot air balloon in Lisbon, in front of King John V and the Portuguese court. It was a small paper balloon made of paper that flew some 4 meters in the air.

In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers built a balloon using the same hot air principle, which flew 2,000 metres high, on the 4th of June of the same year. With the discovery of the hydrogen gas, Jacques Charles filled a balloon with it and flew on 23 August 1783. Although dangerous, it had the advantage of allowing a longer flight to be performed.

Medal Montgofier CC licence from Science Museum large 1946 0114 0001

The Montgolfier Brothers on a medal. Above heads, below the balloon in the clouds


reverse Mongolfier medal CC science museum download

Reverse of medal. Held in the Science Museum.

The Mongolfiers thought it was the ‘coals’ “embers” or smoke that generated the lift. This was not corrected until Englishman James Sadler demonstrated it was the ‘hot air’ that was lighter than cold air and thus gave lift to the balloon.

 reverse Mongolfier medal CC science museum download

 First Public demonstration of Balloon.  4th June 1783.

US LC cards including  First public demonstration in Annonay 4 June 1783 02562r

USLC cards including First public demonstration in Annonay 4 June 1783 02562r

Cards of balloons.



Here our speaker brought to our attention the activities of an Englishman James Sadler, who deduced the Montgolfier brothers were wrong in their understanding of the principle of lift as ‘the smoke’ but in reality the less dense hot air as hot air was ‘lighter’ than cold or ambient air. This was to the audience a most interesting unknown person and fact.

James Sadler.

Text from Wikipedia

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James Sadler balloonist

Sadler worked as a pastry chef in the family business, The Lemon Hall Refreshment House, a small shop in Oxford.
Sadler was the second person to make a balloon ascent in England, very soon after the Tuscan Vincent Lunardi's flight on 15 September 1784 in the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company at Moorfields.
However, James Sadler was the first English Aeronaut having made his ascent during the month after on 4 October 1784 from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford. The balloon rose to about 3,600 feet and landed near Woodeaton, around six miles away. His second ascent on 12 November, this time in a hydrogen-filled balloon, reached Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire after a twenty-minute flight. In May of the following year he took off near Moulsey Hurst, Surrey, accompanied by W. Wyndham MP, hoping to reach France, but in fact descending in the Thames Estuary, and thus failing to repeat the earlier exploit of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his passenger. Sadler made two further ascents in May 1785, the first of which was from a field behind a gentleman's garden on the site of what is now Balloon Street in Manchester. On this flight he was accompanied by a cat and landed in Radcliffe. On his second ascent he travelled alone and having risen to 13,000 ft. travelled 50 miles before landing near Pontefract, West Yorkshire. On this occasion, he sustained bad injuries after being dragged for around 2 miles by the balloon, which eventually threw him clear before taking off again empty.

He was appointed Chemist in 1796 in the newly created Naval Works Department under Sir Samuel Bentham. Although the post was only abolished in 1807, he had major disagreements with Bentham and carried out few works. His most important invention was that of the table steam engine. He was responsible for improvements to cannon design, from the barrel to the shot used, to improve accuracy; for which he was praised by Admiral Lord Nelson.

He resumed his ballooning activities although he was devastated by the death of his younger son, Windham Windham Sadler, in a ballooning accident in 1824.
He is buried at the church of St Peter-in-the-East in Oxford, now part of the college St Edmund Hall.


Although a celebrity in his own time, Sadler is largely unknown today. This has been partly attributed to his lack of writing any works and partly to class prejudice: he was only a pastry chef and not formally educated. Despite being a resident of Oxford and an accomplished scientist, the university mostly ignored him and academics looked down on him. While obituaries for Sadler were written elsewhere on his death, the university's own newspaper wrote simply, "Mr James Sadler, elder brother of Mr Sadler of Rose Hill, Oxford, has died."

Manchester connection.

A public square in Manchester was named after Sadler on 8 September 2015 by NOMA, which is a neighbourhood being developed in partnership by The Co-operative Group and Hermes Investment Management. The square is named Sadler's Yard and is near to Balloon Street.

Link to BBC articles.


Montgolfier Brothers.

The well known balloon ascent and the many articles about this and the images and engravings has instilled in the public mind the Montgolfier brothers as the main characters in hot air ballooning.



British first “airship pilot”

Ernest Willows,

Called the Father of British Airships who was issued Airship Pilots Certificate No. 1.

Ernest Thompson Willows was born 11 July 1886, Cardiff, Wales, and died 3 August 1926.

Ernest Thompson Willows (1886–1926) was a pioneer Welsh aviator and airship builder. He became the first person in the United Kingdom to hold a pilots certificate for an airship when the Royal Aero Club awarded him Airship Pilots Certificate No. 1.


 Willows Public domain 1905.Willows.No.1 tn

Willows No. 1

Built in 1905, Willows' first airship at age 19, offered some very unique features amongst airships of the day. Most notable is that it flew and was navigable! In addition to a 10 foot diameter, pusher propeller, the engine drove a pair of propellers in the front. These tractor propellers could be swivelled to direct their thrust and thus the ship could turn, ascend or descend without the use of rudders or elevators. The gas envelope of the No. 1 was 72 feet long, 18 feet in diameter, made of varnished silk (common among the early, small airships of the era), carrying a 30 foot long, triangular, steel-tube frame gondola.

He built his first airship, the Willows No. 1, in 1905 when he was 19. It was first flown from East Moors, Cardiff on 5 August 1905, the flight lasting 85 minutes. This was soon followed by an improved Willows No. 2, in which he landed outside Cardiff City Hall on 4 June 1910. No. 2 was re-built as No. 3 which he named the City of Cardiff before he flew it from London to Paris in 1910. This was the first airship crossing of the English Channel at night and the first from England to France. The journey was not without incident, including dropping the maps over the side during the night, and problems with the envelope caused the airship to land at Corbehem near Douai at two o'clock in the morning. With the help of the local French aviator Louis Breguet the airship was repaired and arrived at Paris on 28 December 1910. He celebrated New Year's Eve with a flight around the Eiffel Tower.
Willows moved to Birmingham to build his next airship, the Willows No. 4. First flown in 1912, it was sold to the Admiralty for £1,050 and it became His Majesty's Naval Airship No. 2.

 His Majestys Naval Airship No. 2 on the ground Ernest Willows airship.Willows 2a Public Domain

 His Majesty's Naval Airship No. 2 on the ground Ernest Willows airship.

 His picture is on website.


Charles Green.

Charles green was noted for using coal gas to replace hydrogen. A much less costly gas and quicker to fill a balloon.
Link and extract.

Charles Green (31 January 1785 – 26 March 1870) was the United Kingdom's most famous balloonist of the 19th century. He experimented with coal gas as a cheaper and more readily available alternative to hydrogen for lifting power. His first ascent was in a coal gas balloon on 19 July 1821. He became a professional balloonist and had made 200 ascents by 1835. In 1836, he set a major long distance record in the balloon Royal Vauxhall, flying overnight from Vauxhall Gardens in London to Weilburg, Duchy of Nassau (Germany) a distance of 480 miles (770 km). By the time he retired in 1852, he had flown in a balloon more than 500 times.

 Charles Green Balloonist 20px

Henri Giffard.

He was notable for using a steam engine in his balloon.  A steam power steering balloon. Steam was never used again.
Steerable flight. (“Dirigible”)

 A good photo of an early collectable card as an advertisement is on this site with Henri Giffard’s balloon.
A German collectible card, a so-called “Liebigbild”, added to product packaging of a meat extract
around 1900, showing Giffard on his flight.

Jules Henri Giffard, a French engineer and inventor. He built the first full-size airship — a cigar-shaped, non-rigid bag that was 143 feet (44 meters) long and had a capacity of 113,000 cubic feet (3,200 cubic meters). He also built a small 3-horsepower (2.2-kilowatt) steam engine to power a three-bladed propeller. The engine weighed 250 pounds (113 kilograms) and needed a 100-pound (45.4 kilograms) boiler to fire it.

The first flight of Giffard's steam-powered airship took place Sept. 24, 1852 — 51 years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Travelling at about 6 miles per hour (10 kilometres/hour), Giffard travelled almost 17 miles (27 kilometres) from the Paris racecourse to Elancourt, near Trappes. The small engine could not overcome the prevailing winds, and Giffard could only manage to turn the airship in slow circles. He did, however, prove that in calm conditions controlled flight was possible.


Santos-Dumont. A Brazilian in France.

France was the established place for airship technology and others came there to be involved at the centre of the developing industry.

Santos Dumont.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (20 July 1873 – 23 July 1932) was a Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer, one of the very few people to have contributed significantly to the development of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircraft.

Santos Dumont WikipediaCommons photo "14 bis".

The heir of a wealthy family of coffee producers, Santos-Dumont dedicated himself to aeronautical study and experimentation in Paris, where he spent most of his adult life. In his early career he designed, built, and flew hot air balloons and early dirigibles, culminating in his winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on 19 October 1901 for a flight that rounded the Eiffel Tower.

Good article in link:

He was involved in both 'lighter-than-air' machines and 'heavier-than-air' machines.

Santos Dumont was also the first to fly a “Heavier-Than-Air Machine” in Europe in 1906.

 Santos Dumont WikipediaCommons photo Voo do 14 bis. Santos Dumonts flight over Bagatelle in its 14 Bis

Photo of his “14 bis” engine powered flight.



Stanley Spencer

Stanley Edward Spencer (1868–1906) was an early English aeronaut, famous for ballooning and parachuting in several countries, and later for building and flying an airship over London in 1902

 Foto von Luftschiffer Stnley Spencer mit Familie der Zeitschrift Die Woche Nr. 40 vom 4. Oktober 1902.512px Stanley Spencer Aeronaut

 Photograph in the German boulevard magazine Die Woche showing "Luftschiffer Stanley Spencer mit Familie" (Aeronaut Stanley Spencer with family).


 Spencer designed "MellinsAirship" advertising airship


Spencer designed "Mellins Airship" advertising airship.


British airships.

Aviation in Britain Before the First World War RAE O755.By Royal Engineers official photographer This is photograph RAE O 755 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. Public Domain 24267699

Aviation in Britain Before the First World War RAE O755.By Royal Engineers

Five British Army Airships the Nulli Secundus Dirigible No 2 the Beta the Baby and the Gamma RAE O104

Five British Army Airships the Nulli Secundus Dirigible No 2 the Beta the Baby and the Gamma RAE O104


The German developments.

Prior to the first world war, the German forces had developed on the previous ideas and built airships.
As did other forces as spotter platforms for observation and fire control.
Britain had discounted Airship Raids as ‘they flew during the day’ They were large and could be seen’ and thus easy targets.

The Germans proved the British wrong. Zeppelins flew at night, and were very difficult to shoot down as they flew at heights which took a fighter plane about 40 minutes or more to get to that height and the ammunition did not set the Zeppelins on fire, and as they had many ‘gas bags’ the lost of one or more was a mere inconvenience.
Eventually a crisis developed in the UK as ‘air raids’ became an actual event.

Here London was saved much damage as The Kaiser kept back the Germans from bombing UK for a couple of years or so. Specifically London where there were his cousins and fellow monarch, a later example of how the British at Waterloo did not shell Napoleon because Wellington said “we do not shell generals”, when asked for permission to fire on Napoleon.

Guided Airships.

Zeppelin’s developments were due to his research on the topic of "Lenkbare Luftschiffe" or "guidable airships", with rigid structural shape to with stand the forces during flight.
See link:
Article on Zeppelin.

 German 75px Bundesarchiv Bild 146 2005 0095 Graf von Zeppelin

Graf von Zeppelin


Article: on warfare.

With a comic style illustrations and story. History rendered into internet art.

Zeppelin, Count Ferdinand Graf Von Zeppelin

"On the night of January 19, 1915 two German navy Zeppelins carried out the first successful bombing run against British soil. One of the ships was the L-3. Both craft bombed from an altitude of 3,000 feet and both returned safely. On May 31, 1915, ten months into the war, the first Zeppelins showed up over London. In August 1916 two-million cubic feet mid-level ships operating at 13,000 feet went on line. It wasn't until September 2, 1916 that the British pulled the first airship out of the sky over England in direct air-to-air combat"



Zeppelin. Brief story of his life.

Extract from:

 Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) was born in Konstanz, Baden on 8 April 1838 and was the first large-scale builder of the rigid dirigibles which eventually became synonymous with his name.

USA service of Count Zeppelin.

German USA War students of two continents by Alexander Gardner 1863

German USA War students of two continents by Alexander Gardner 1863 (with von Zeppelin).

Count von Zeppelin's military career was somewhat varied. During a leave of absence from the Prussian army in 1863 he served with the Union army during the U.S. Civil War. More conventionally he served with the Prussian army in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, during which he was commended for bravery.

He married, in 1869, to Isaballa Freiin von Wolff from Livonia; they had a daughter, Hella, born in Ulm in 1879.

His own fortune was put behind his ideas as he funded the research from his own money.
Zeppelin first conducted balloon trials whilst in the U.S. as a military observer during the 1860s. He subsequently founded an airship factory at Friedrichshafen using his own funds, retiring from the army in 1891 with the position of lieutenant-general. Zeppelin proceeded to devote the remainder of his life to the design and construction of engine-powered dirigibles.

The first successful trial of one of his airships took place on 2 July 1900. Eight years later Zeppelins were making routine commercial mail and passenger flights over Germany, with a remarkable safety record despite the risks in using highly flammable hydrogen gas to inflate the airships.

Zeppelin successfully persuaded the German military of the potential of using airships during wartime. Consequently Zeppelin's LZ-3 model was accepted into German army service in March 1909 as the Zeppelin Luftschiff 1. In the event, during the First World War, the German military deployed 115 Zeppelins for a variety of missions including reconnaissance and bombing, despite their vulnerability to attack and bad weather.

Zeppelin aircraft were effectively removed from front line service at Verdun in 1916, as improved Allied aircraft succeeded in achieving a higher destruction rate. Even so, newer models were introduced that could fly higher and higher, although this impacted their bombing accuracy. Their use was more or less discontinued in 1917 as Allied bombers demonstrated a consistent ability to destroy the airships.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin died on 8 March 1917 in Berlin.

German Dirigible Flying Over the British Fleet

German Dirigible Flying Over the British Fleet.



German Bull George Hotel Ramsgate Kent England German Zeppelin raid damage 1915

German Bull George Hotel Ramsgate Kent England German Zeppelin raid damage 1915.


British Airships.


Extract summary.

Airship development in the United Kingdom lagged behind that of Germany and France. The first British designed and built airship was constructed by Stanley Spencer, and on 22 September 1902 was flown 30 miles (48 km) from Crystal Palace, London to Ruislip, carrying an advertisement for baby food. A series of more practical airships was constructed by Ernest Willows, the "Willows Number 1" making its first flight near Cardiff on 5 August 1905. The Royal Navy realised that airships similar to Ferdinand von Zeppelin's designs could be of great use and in 1909 ordered construction of a rigid airship. This was completed in 1911 but was wrecked while leaving the hangar before it had flown. Meanwhile, the British Army's School of Ballooning, later the Air Battalion Royal Engineers, acquired a small fleet of semi-rigid and non-rigid airships for observation purposes; they were taken over by the Royal Navy on the creation of the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914. A large number of rigid and non-rigid airships were mainly used to counter the U-Boat campaign in World War I. Interest in military airships declined at the end of the war, but some success in the commercial field inspired the Imperial Airship Scheme; however, the disastrous crash of the R101 in 1930 ended serious government and commercial interest in airships.
Since the 1970s, there have been persistent efforts to revive a British airship industry, using new designs, materials and technologies.

Page with notes on raids on Britain and counter offences.



First Zeppelin casualty over UK.

Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, of No 39 Squadron, proved this theory wrong when on 2 September 1916 he took off from Suttons Farm, near Hornchurch and shot down with incendiary and explosive ammunition SL11, a Schütte-Lanz airship (principally of wooden structure, unlike the metal framed Zeppelins). SL11 crashed at Cuffley in Hertfordshire and Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

By 1917 the strength of the Home Defence (HD) units stood at twelve squadrons, mostly operating from airfields with at least some night flying facilities. After a three month gap, a 5 airship raid on London was launched on the night of 16/17 March 1917. The attack proved ineffective due to bad weather. The same was true for three further raids during the summer of 1917.
The final Zeppelin bombing attack on England took place on the night of 5/6 August 1918 with 5 airships taking part. Once again bad weather was a factor in the effectiveness of the raid. None crossed the English coast and L70, Germany’s newest Zeppelin, was shot down by a DH 4 off Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

Such was the end of the Zeppelin raids.

Accidents and casualties.

There were many lives lost during the period of early development, and accidents in flight.
As in the development of most transport systems, there were many early casualties through accident or mismanagement.
The future of development of travel depends on pioneers taking acceptable risks.


The members and visitors thank Dave Bushby for a most enjoyable talk, which has shown us facts and events we did not have in our general knowledge.