Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's serious interest in airship development dates from 1884, when he was inspired by a recent lecture given by Heinrich von Stephan on the subject of "World Postal Services and Air Travel" to outline the basic principle of his later craft in a diary entry dated 25 March 1874. This describes a large rigidly-framed outer envelope containing a number of separate gasbags. He had previously encountered Union Army balloons in 1863, during the American Civil War, where he was a military observer.
He began to seriously pursue his project after his early retirement from the military in 1890 at the age of 52. Convinced of the potential importance of aircraft designs, he started working on various designs in 1891, and had completed detailed designs by 1893 These were reviewed by an official committee in 1894, and were the subject of a patent granted on 31 August 1895,with Theodor Kober producing the technical plans.
Construction of the first Zeppelin began in 1899 in a floating assembly hall in the Bay of Manzell on Lake Constance, Friedrichshafen. This was intended to facilitate the difficult launching procedure, as the hall could easily be aligned with the wind. The prototype airship LZ 1 (LZ for Luftschiff Zeppelin, or "Airship Zeppelin") had a length of 128 metres (420 ft), was driven by two 14.2 horsepower (10.6 kW) Daimler engines and was controlled in pitch by moving a weight between its two nacelles.The first Zeppelin flight took place on 2 July 1900 over Lake Constance (the Bodensee).
After the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the term zeppelin in casual use came to refer to all rigid airships. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910 by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), the world's first airline in revenue service. By mid-1914, DELAG had carried over 34,000 passengers on over 1,500 flights. After the outbreak of World War I, the German military made extensive use of Zeppelins as bombers and scouts.
The World War I defeat of Germany in 1918 temporarily halted the airship business. But under the guidance of Hugo Eckener, the deceased Count's successor, civilian Zeppelins became popular again. In 1919 DELAG established scheduled daily services between Berlin, Munich, and Friedrichshafen. Their heyday was during the 1930s when the airships LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ 129 Hindenburg operated regular transatlantic flights from Germany to North America and Brazil. The Art Deco spire of the Empire State Building was originally, if impractically, designed to serve as a mooring mast for Zeppelins and other airships to dock at. The Hindenburg disaster in 1937, along with political and economic issues, hastened the demise of the Zeppelins.