The British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus once presented a sketch in which Graham Chapman, as Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, pitched various dignitaries out the door of his airborne vessel, crying, with ever more frustration, “It’s not a balloon, it’s an airship!” Allowing for comedic exaggeration, this is a pretty fair representation of the climate in which the German former military man invented his worldchanging means of transportation: he knew he was on to something special, something monumental, but he couldn’t seem to convince anyone else of it. Botting’s marvelous book chronicles the creation of the zeppelin from the count’s various attempts at powered flight through the efforts of his successor, Hugo Eckener, to make the zeppelin the world’s primary means of air travel. It’s a truly exciting book, filled with colorful characters and plenty of derring-do and laced with just the right amount of sadness and tragedy; the history of the zeppelin is, after all, also the history of air warfare, and the count’s thrilling invention was used for some pretty terrible things. (And we must not forget the Hindenburg , whose final moments in May 1937 were captured on film and described live by a radio reporter.) A breathtaking book.
This review originally appeared in Booklist, September 2001.