Today, the seed of an invention takes 37 years to
sprout. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A 25-year-old German cavalry
officer -- a Prussian nobleman -- came to America
during the Civil War as a foreign observer of the
Union Army. When I tell you his name you'll all
know it, but let's wait a moment for that
revelation. In any event, the fellow had quite an
adventure here. He narrowly escaped capture by the
Confederate Army in Virginia. He watched draft
riots in New York, he flirted with young ladies on
a Great Lakes boat from Cleveland, Ohio, to
Superior, Wisconsin. He ate muskrat and hunted with
Indians. His remarkable journey eventually brought
him to the International Hotel in St. Paul,
Just across the street from his hotel, a balloonist
named John Steiner was flying passengers in his
observation balloon. Steiner had flown for the
Union Army as a civilian observer. His work
probably saved McClellan's Army from defeat in
1862. But he'd quit the Army in a dispute over pay
and gone barnstorming.
The German officer decided to add a balloon ride to
his American adventure. So Steiner sent him up on a
solo flight at the end of a 700-foot tether rope.
Our young officer wrote a letter-report of the
experience. Outwardly it was straightforward
reporting of the military potential of observation
balloons; but between the lines bubbled a barely
The young man returned to Germany and completed a
long military career before he came back to this
bright moment in his youth. By then, many people
had built rigid navigable balloons -- or
dirigibles. The first successful one had been flown
by the Frenchman Giffard eleven years before that
flight in St Paul. But no one had yet made a
commercially viable dirigible.
Now our German officer, whose name was Count
Ferdinand von Zeppelin, took up dirigible-building
just after his 60th birthday. He flew his first
airship in 1900.
Zeppelin managed to synthesize the various elements
other inventors had played with all through the
19th century. He lived and worked for another 14
years, and by the time he died he'd created the
grandest machines in the air. The spectacular
Zeppelin airships continued to dazzle everyone
until the whole technology went up in smoke with
the Hindenburg crash in 1937.
And we're left with the astounding fact that the
seed for all this was sown in Western America
during the Civil War. Shortly before he died,
While I was above St. Paul I had my first idea
of aerial navigation strongly impressed on me and
it was there that the first idea of my Zeppelins
came to me.
Perhaps Zeppelin was so successful just
because he was fulfilling a dream that had grown
within him for a whole lifetime.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds