The Real Lead Zeppelins

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.


Paul Collins had a wonderful article in the Jan 09 issue of New Scientist describing the history of metal balloons, and inventor Edmond Marey-Monge who in 1844 planned to launch his "ballon de cuivre" - a brass balloon.

"While Parisians bought their tickets to watch the giant orb take shape, the project also captured imaginations abroad. The merits of metal balloons were debated at length by armchair aeronauts in Britain, including one who wrote to Mechanics Magazine to suggest an "iron balloon" 400 foot (120 metres) wide as "not contrary to the spirit of the times" - though, he allowed, it might "gambol about the Earth's surface with great danger to life and limb of the human race, as well as terror to animal creation generally".

The height of success for the floating, metal crafts was the ZMC-2, or "Tin Bubble", which "could reach a speed of 100 kilometres an hour, and it put in 2200 flight hours before it was decommissioned in 1941." Metal balloons made a short comeback in 1977 at "The Great Lead Balloon Contest." From one of the contest entrants

"The third balloon, the Lead Zeppelin took the prize. It too broke its tether and was last seen heading toward Logan airport - After some laughter on the part of the tower personnel, they began tracking our IFO (Identified Flying Object) and it was last spotted by a commercial aircraft out over the Atlantic Ocean headed toward Europe!"

We may in fact see metal Zeppelins again, as plans for futuristic blimp the "Turtle" are for a 200mph, solar powered, gigantic metal ballon.

Link to the wonderful Paul Collins article (his histories are practically reason enough to subscribe to the magazine), a post at the ADL Chronicles the 1977 "The Great Lead Balloon Contest" and a link to a youtube of the Mythbusters who, in 2008, created and floated their very own lead ballon, and to the "Turtle" a planned eco-friendly metal blimp.


  1. Thank you for linking to my ADL Chronicles and my posting on the Arthur D. Little silk purse made from sows ears and our lead balloon flyoff.

    I was a member of one of the teams that constructed and flew the three lead balloons in May of 1977.

    For the complete story, see my blog, ADL Chronicles:


    Irv Arons

  2. In Ben Franklins autobiography there is a bunch of really cool history about Ben Franklins part in creating the first balloon flights in France…

  3. it might “gambol about the Earth’s surface with great danger to life and limb of the human race, as well as terror to animal creation generally”.

    God, I hope so.

  4. I’ve seen pictures of glass balloons. Glass can be drawn/blown pretty much infinitely thin, and these blown balloons were filled with helium and sealed, and yes, they floated.

    Ideally, a balloon would be filled with nothing, i.e. a vacuum. Where is the structure that can resist 1 atmosphere and still be light enough? Doesn’t exist yet.

    Gold leaf can be beaten very thin. Wonder if you could assemble a small hot air balloon out of them? That would be snazzy. Fill it w/hot air, then hang a tiny candle or other flame under it, and off it goes…

  5. For some reason this reminds me of the steam dirigible idea, not a steampunk fantasy but rather a serious proposal to use steam as the lifting gas. This lets you turn ballast into lift gas using the waste heat of a steam engine, that is, using the envelope of the airship as the condenser of the engine, thus eliminating by far the heaviest part of the steam engine, making it light enough for aeronautical use.

    Steam gives about 60% of the lift per volume of Helium and twice the lift of hot air. (100C steam in STP air = 6.26 N/m^3) The envelope can be insulated to retain heat seven times longer than a bare envelope (200g vs. 1400g condensate per m^2 per hour) at a modest weight penalty of 200g /m^2 (a bit more than the bare envelope + condensation weight of 185g/m^2).

  6. “gambol about the Earth’s surface with great danger to life and limb of the human race, as well as terror to animal creation generally”.

    “And with that gentleman, let us recess to the parlour, I’ve acquired two mummiest, their unwrapping should be most entertaining.

  7. Thank you for mentioning the “turtle” airship.
    This is Darrell Campbell, CEO of Turtle Airships.
    Our company is 28 years old now, we are firmly committed to creating a global airship industry. Our goal is to field SOLAR POWERED, fast, amphibious, rigid shelled airships. (your note about the successfull ZMC-2 was particularly pleasing) That same success then, with aluminum metal airships; can be re-done, using the much stronger materials of todays’ technology.

    Turtle Airships will create “flying cruise ships”. Passengers on board Turtle Airships will enjoy private staterooms with showers, dancing on board, good “sit down” restaurants, etc.

    Using Solar Power and bio-diesel jet engines, the airships will greatly reduce the carbon emissions that current jets leave in the atmosphere. It’s our way of helping to create a better world!

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