Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin) was born on July 8, 1838 on an island in the Bodensee (Lake Constance). He attended the military academy at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, and at age 20 became an officer in the army of Wurttemberg.
In 1863, Zeppelin traveled to the United States as a military observer during the American Civil War. With the endorsement of German-born Carl Schurz, who was a general in the Union Army, and the support of others, Zeppelin received a pass signed by President Abraham Lincoln which enabled him to travel with the northern armies. After only a few months, however, Zeppelin left the war zone to explore the American frontier, and it was in St. Paul, Minnesota — far from the battlefields of the Civil War — that Zeppelin saw his first balloon.
Zeppelin’s first experience with lighter-than-air flight was an ascent in this 41,000 cubic foot balloon, inflated with coal gas, which had previously been used as an observation balloon by the Union Army. Operated by John Steiner, a German-born balloonist who had served in the Union Army, the balloon reached 600 to 700 feet in a tethered ascent; Count von Zeppelin had seen the world from the air.
Later in his career Zeppelin renewed his interest in lighter-than-air flight, and began developing preliminary concepts for the design of a steerable airship.
In 1874 Zeppelin made entries in his diary describing a rigid-framed, aerodynamically flown ship constructed of rings and longitudinal girders and containing individual gas cells, and in 1887 Zeppelin sent a memo to the King of Wurttemberg formally proposing the use of airships for military purposes. But it was not until his early forced retirement from the Army in 1890, at the age of 52, that Zeppelin was able to devote himself more fully to the problems of lighter-than-air flight. Within 10 years he would build his first airship, Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ-1).
Zeppelin was not only the innovator and driving force behind the construction of the first zeppelin airships, he also piloted and commanded most of the early ships himself.