As was the case with the aeroplane, Great Britain left France and Germany to make the running in the early days of airship construction; the balloon section of the Royal Engineers was compelled to confine its energies to work with balloons pure and simple until well after the twentieth century had dawned, and such experiments as were made in England were done by private initiative. As far back as 1900 Doctor Barton built an airship at the Alexandra Palace and voyaged across London in it. Four years later Mr E. T. Willows of Cardiff produced the first successful British dirigible, a semi-rigid 74 feet in length and 18 feet in diameter, engined with a 7 horse-power Peugot twin-cylindered motor. This drove a two-bladed propeller at the stern for propulsion, and also actuated a pair of auxiliary propellers at the front which could be varied in their direction so as to control the right and left movements of the airship. This device was patented and the patent was taken over by the British Government, which by 1908 found Mr Willow's work of sufficient interest to regard it as furnishing data for experiment at the balloon factory at Farnborough. In 1909, Willows steered one of his dirigibles to London from Cardiff in a little less than ten hours, making an average speed of over 14 miles an hour. The best speed accomplished was probably considerably greater than this, for at intervals of a few miles, Willows descended near the earth to ascertain his whereabouts with the help of a megaphone. It must be added that he carried a compass in addition to his megaphone. He set out for Paris in November of 1910, reached the French coast, and landed near Douai. Some damage was sustained in this landing, but, after repair, the trip to Paris was completed.

Meanwhile the Government balloon factory at Farnborough began airship construction in 1907; Colonel Capper, R.E., and S. F. Cody were jointly concerned in the production of a semi-rigid. Fifteen thicknesses of goldbeaters' skin - about the most expensive covering obtainable - were used for the envelope, which was 25 feet in diameter. A slight shower of rain in which the airship was caught led to its wreckage, owing to the absorbent quality of the goldbeaters' skin, whereupon Capper and Cody set to work to reproduce the airship and its defects on a larger scale. The first had been named 'Nulli Secundus' and the second was named 'Nulli Secundus II.' Punch very appropriately suggested that the first vessel ought to have been named 'Nulli Primus,' while a possible third should be christened 'Nulli Tertius.' 'Nulli Secundus II.' was fitted with a 100 horse-power engine and had an envelope of 42 feet in diameter, the goldbeaters' skin being covered in fabric and the car being suspended by four bands which encircled the balloon envelope. In October of 1907, 'Nulli Secundus II.' made a trial flight from Farnborough to London and was anchored at the Crystal Palace. The wind sprung up and took the vessel away from its mooring ropes, wrecking it after the one flight.

Stagnation followed until early in 1909, when a small airship fitted with two 12 horse-power motors and named the 'Baby' was turned out from the balloon factory. This was almost egg-shaped, the blunt end being forward, and three inflated fins being placed at the tail as control members. A long car with rudder and elevator at its rear-end carried the engines and crew; the 'Baby' made some fairly successful flights and gave a good deal of useful data for the construction of later vessels.

Next to this was 'Army Airship 2A 'launched early in 1910 and larger, longer, and narrower in design than the Baby. The engine was an 80 horse-power Green motor which drove two pairs of propellers; small inflated control members were fitted at the stern end of the envelope, which was 154 feet in length. The suspended car was 84 feet long, carrying both engines and crew, and the Willows idea of swivelling propellers for governing the direction was used in this vessel. In June of that year a new, small-type dirigible, the 'Beta,' was produced, driven by a 30 horse-power Green engine with which she flew over 3,000 miles. She was the most successful British dirigible constructed up to that time, and her successor, the 'Gamma,' was built on similar lines. The 'Gamma' was a larger vessel, however, produced in 1912, with flat, controlling fins and rudder at the rear end of the envelope, and with the conventional long car suspended at some distance beneath the gas bag. By this time, the mooring mast, carrying a cap of which the concave side fitted over the convex nose of the airship, had been originated. The cap was swivelled, and, when attached to it, an airship was held nose on to the wind, thus reducing by more than half the dangers attendant on mooring dirigibles in the open.

Private subscription under the auspices of the Morning Post got together sufficient funds in 1910 for the purchase of a Lebaudy airship, which was built in France, flown across the Channel, and presented to the Army Airship Fleet. This dirigible was 337 feet long, and was driven by two 135 horse-power Panhard motors, each of which actuated two propellers. The journey from Moisson to Aldershot was completed at a speed of 36 miles an hour, but the airship was damaged while being towed into its shed. On May of the following year, the Lebaudy was brought out for a flight, but, in landing, the guide rope fouled in trees and sheds and brought the airship broadside on to the wind; she was driven into some trees and wrecked to such an exteent that rebuilding was considered an impossibility. A Clement Bayard, bought by the army airship section, became scrap after even less flying than had been accomplished by the Lebaudy.