In 1897 an airship with an aluminum envelope was built by the Hungarian-Croatian engineer David Schwarz. It made its first flight at Tempelhof field in Berlin after Schwarz had died. His widow, Melanie Schwarz, was paid 15,000 marks by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin to release the industrialist Carl Berg from his exclusive contract to supply Schwartz with aluminium.
In July 1900 the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1 made its first flight. This led to the most successful airships of all time: the Zeppelins, named after Count von Zeppelin who began working on rigid airship designs in the 1890s, leading to the flawed LZ1 in 1900 and the more successful LZ2 in 1906. The Zeppelin airships had a framework composed of triangular lattice girders covered with fabric which contained separate gas cells. At first multiplane tail surfaces were used for control and stability: later designs had simpler later cruciform tail surfaces. The engines and crew were accommodated in “gondolas” hung beneath the hull driving propellers attached to the sides of the frame by means of long drive shafts. Additionally, there was a passenger compartment (later a bomb bay) located halfway between the two engine compartments.
Alberto Santos-Dumont was a wealthy Brazilian who lived in France and had a passion for flying. He designed 18 balloons and dirigibles before turning his attention to fixed-winged aircraft. On 19 October 1901 he flew his airship Number 6, a small semi-rigid with a detached keel, from the Parc Saint Cloud to and around the Eiffel Tower and back in under thirty minutes. This feat earned him the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100,000 francs. Many inventors were inspired by Santos-Dumont’s small airships and a veritable airship craze began worldwide. Many airship pioneers, such as the American Thomas Scott Baldwin, financed their activities through passenger flights and public demonstration flights. Stanley Spencer built the first British airship with funds from advertising baby food on the sides of the envelope. Others, such as Walter Wellman and Melvin Vaniman, set their sights on loftier goals, attempting two polar flights in 1907 and 1909, and two trans-Atlantic flights in 1910 and 1912.
In 1902, the Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo published details of an innovative airship design in Spain and France. With a non-rigid body and internal bracing wires, it overcame the flaws of these types of aircraft as regards both rigid structure (zeppelin type) and flexibility, providing the airships with more stability during flight and the capability of using heavier engines and a greater passenger load. In 1905, helped by Captain A. Kindelán, he built the airship “España” at the Guadalajara military base. Next year he patented his design without attracting official interest. In 1909 he patented an improved design which he offered to the French Astra company, who started mass-producing it in 1911 as the Astra-Torres airship. The distinctive three-lobed design was widely used during the Great War by the Entente powers.
Other airship builders were also active before the war: from 1902 the French company Lebaudy Frères specialized in semi-rigid airships such as the Patrie and the République, designed by their engineer Henri Julliot, who later worked for the American company Goodrich; the German firm Schütte-Lanz built the wooden-framed SL series from 1911, introducing important technical innovations; another German firm Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft built the Parseval-Luftschiff (PL) series from 1909, and Italian Enrico Forlanini’s firm had built and flown the first two Forlanini airships.
On May 12, 1902, the inventor and Brazilian aeronaut Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhao and his French mechanic, Georges Saché, died when they were flying over Paris at the airship called Pax. A marble plaque at number 81 of the Avenue du Maine in Paris, celebrates the location of Augusto Severo accident. The Catastrophe of the Balloon “Le Pax” is a 1902 short silent film recreation of the catastrophe, directed by Georges Méliès.
In Britain, the Army built their first dirigible, the Nulli Secundus, in 1907. The Navy ordered the construction of an experimental rigid in 1908. Officially known as His Majesty’s Airship No. 1 and nicknamed the Mayfly, it broke its back in 1911 before making a single flight. Work on a successor did not start until 1913.
In 1910 Walter Wellman unsuccessfully attempted an aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in the airship America.