An airship is a ligher-than-air, steerable (dirigible) vessel consisting of gas bags, which provide the lift, within an envelope; crew and passenger accommodation and engines are slung beneath (though accommodation was sometimes provided within the envelope). The first reliably successful airships were manufactured by Graf von Zeppelin at his works at Lake Konstanz, southern Germany, and the name Zeppelin became attached almost as a generic term for airships. During the First World War, airships took on a military role. Germany especially made use of this new technology: Zeppelins were operated by both the army and navy, carried out reconnaissance work, and were used to carry out terror bombing of civilian areas in major British cities.
Between the wars, airships were developed as a means of long-distance transport (especially on trans-Atlantic routes). Again Germany took the lead: the Graf Zeppelin passenger liner was perhaps the most successful and furthest-travelled airship ever made. Other countries were less enthusiastic: US use of large airships was ended by the disasters which struck the naval airships Macon and Akron, while the British programme ended after the crash of the R101 in northern France. German ambitions were dented, but not ended, by the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey in 1937: further huge airship keels were laid down, but the outbreak of war in 1939 killed the programme.
Since World War II, airships have been suggested from time to time as a rational solution for a variety of transportation needs, and small airships - buoyed by helium rather than the inflammable hydrogen which was the lifting agent of most earlier craft - have been built and operated. Howeverm, there is as yet no realistic prospect of airships attaining again the prominence they held in the 1920s and 1930s.