CHAPTER III. GERMANY'S RISE TO MILITARY AIRSHIP SUPREMACY

Two incidents in the history of aviation stand out with exceptional prominence. The one is the evolution of the Zeppelin airship - a story teeming with romance and affording striking and illuminating glimpses of dogged perseverance, grim determination in the face of repeated disasters, and the blind courageous faith of the inventor in the creation of his own brain. The second is the remarkable growth of Germany's military airship organisation, which has been so rapid and complete as to enable her to assume supremacy in this field, and that within the short span of a single decade.

The Zeppelin has always aroused the world's attention, although this interest has fluctuated. Regarded at first as a wonderful achievement of genius, afterwards as a freak, then as the ready butt for universal ridicule, and finally with awe, if not with absolute terror - such in brief is the history of this craft of the air.

Count von Zeppelin can scarcely be regarded as an ordinary man. He took up the subject of flight at an age which the majority of individuals regard as the opportune moment for retirement from activity, and, knowing nothing about mechanical engineering, he concentrated his energies upon the study of this science to enable him to master the difficulties of a mechanical character incidental to the realisation of his grand idea. His energy and indomitable perseverance are equalled by his ardent patriotism, because, although the Fatherland discounted his idea when other Powers were ready to consider it, and indeed made him tempting offers for the acquisition of his handiwork, he stoutly declined all such solicitations, declaring that his invention, if such it may be termed, was for his own country and none other.

Count von Zeppelin developed his line of study and thought for one reason only. As an old campaigner and a student of military affairs he realised the shortcomings of the existing methods of scouting and reconnoitring. He appreciated more than any other man of the day perhaps, that if the commander-in-chief of an army were provided with facilities for gazing down upon the scene of operations, and were able to take advantage of all the information accruing to the man above who sees all, he would hold a superior position, and be able to dispose his forces and to arrange his plan of campaign to the most decisive advantage. In other words, Zeppelin conceived and developed his airship for one field of application and that alone-military operations. Although it has achieved certain successes in other directions these have been subsidiary to the primary intention, and have merely served to emphasise its military value.

Von Zeppelin was handicapped in his line of thought and investigation from the very first. He dreamed big things upon a big scale. The colossal always makes a peculiar and irresistible appeal to the Teutonic nature. So he contemplated the perfection of a big dirigible, eclipsing in every respect anything ever attempted or likely to be attempted by rival countries. Unfortunately, the realisation of the "colossal" entails an equally colossal financial reserve, and the creator of this form of airship for years suffered from financial cramp in its worst manifestation. Probably it was to the benefit of the world at large that Fortune played him such sorry tricks. It retarded the growth of German ambitions in one direction very effectively.

As is well known Zeppelin evolved what may be termed an individual line of thought in connection with his airship activities. He adopted what is known as the indeformable airship: that is to say the rigid, as opposed to the semi-rigid and flexible craft. As a result of patient experiment and continued researches he came to the conclusion that a huge outer envelope taking the form of a polygonal cylinder with hemispherical ends, constructed upon substantial lines with a metallic skeleton encased within an impermeable skin, and charged with a number of smaller balloon-shaped vessels containing the lifting agent - hydrogen gas - would fulfil his requirements to the greatest advantage. Model after model was built upon these lines. Each was subjected to searching tests with the invariable result attending such work with models. Some fulfilled the expectations of the inventor, others resolutely declined to illustrate his reasonings in any direction.

The inevitable happened. When a promising model was completed finally the inventor learned to his sorrow what every inventor realises in time. His fortune and the resources of others had been poured down the sink of experiment. To carry the idea from the model to the practical stage required more money, and it was not forthcoming. The inventor sought to enlist the practical sympathy of his country, only to learn that in Germany, as in other lands, the axiom concerning the prophet, honour, and country prevails. No exuberant inventor received such a cold douche from a Government as did Count Zeppelin from the Prussian authorities. For two years further work was brought practically to a standstill: nothing could be done unless the sinews of war were forthcoming. His friends, who had assisted him financially with his models, now concluded that their aid had been misplaced.