A dirigible, also known as an airship, is a type of buoyant engine powered craft with a steering mechanism. The dirigible is different from a weather balloon, as balloons have no steering systems or power and are unmanned. Dirigibles are also distinguishable from aircraft because of their specialized long bodies. The airship is filled with a light gas such as helium, which provides lift. Unlike an airplane, a dirigible also has no wings, but merely tail fins.
The shape of a dirigible is known to most consumers who have seen blimps, or nonrigid dirigibles, floating across the sky. Most dirigibles have a long, roughly cylinder shaped body which fattens in the middle. At the front of the dirigible is a mooring system so that the dirigible can be docked. Nestled below the craft on the front is a light deck, where the crew members are stationed. Spaced out along the body of the dirigible are the propelling motors and the back steering assembly which has a rudder and a horizontal stabilizer which functions to keep the dirigible upright.
The essential concept of a lighter-than-air craft has been around since the late 1700s, when designs for a craft lighter than the air it displaced was first designed. The predecessor of the dirigible was the hot air balloon, first flown in 1783. In the 1850s, the first prototype of the dirigible was flown by Henri Giffard. In the late 1800s, other versions of the dirigible began to pop up, made more practical by the invention of the gasoline engine. In the early 1900s, dirigibles began to sweep across the world, made by a number of nations including Germany, the United States, and Britain.
Dirigibles played a role in the First World War, with most of the major powers using soft dirigibles to make observations, and Germany using semi-rigid dirigibles to drop bombs on London and the rest of England. Dirigibles continued to be popular through the 1930s, in spite of repeated accidents and the realization that fixed wing airplanes were a better choice for transportation. Eventually, production of dirigibles for military use ceased, while a limited number were still made for civilians.
Perhaps the most famous dirigible ever made has been the Hindenburg, which exploded at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937. The Hindenburg was built by the Zeppelin Company in Germany, which dominated the dirigible market for many years. Designed to be a luxury airship, the Hindenburg was a massive craft, originally intended to be filled with helium, the nonflammable gas which had been used in American dirigibles since the 1920s. However, the ship was inflated with hydrogen because the Germans had no access to helium.
While still docking at Lakehurst, the rear of the Hindenburg caught fire, causing the dirigible to lose lift. It began to sag towards the ground while crew and passengers tried to escape. Astonishingly, 62 of the 97 people aboard managed to escape the Hindenburg, which probably exploded due to the flammable solution used to dope, or seal, the outside of the craft. The explosion of the Hindenburg brought the scheme of replacing luxury ocean liners with dirigibles to a halt, and the craft were primarily used for novelty purposes by the end of the twentieth century.