Mental Floss

Blimp vs. Zeppelin: What's the Difference?

Floss books
Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

The Dilemma: You're at a football game and there's a large, cigar-shaped object hovering suspiciously close to you. Question: Is it a blimp or a zeppelin? And more important, why didn't you get better seats?

People You Can Impress: whoever's perched next to you in the nosebleeds.

The Quick Trick: When in doubt, just think of Led Zeppelin. Zeppelins are heavy metal—or at least they've got metal skeletons. Blimps, on the other hand, aren't.

The Explanation: Both blimps and zeppelins work by being lighter than air—they're filled with a gas that's lighter than oxygen, so they go up like hot-air balloons. But balloons can't be steered. Realizing this, German Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin decided he wanted to devise a "dirigible [or steerable] balloon" in the 1890s for use in military reconnaissance work. Eventually, these dirigible balloons took the generic name zeppelin and were used as bombers or scout craft through World War I. This was just one of their many uses, however. The airships doubled as a major mode of transportation between the wars, routinely making transatlantic flights, and the enormous Graf Zeppelin even circumnavigated the globe in 1929.

So just how popular were these zeppelins? Well, enough that the spire on the top of the Empire State Building was designed as a docking mast for them, although that idea proved impractical due to the serious updrafts (and besides, who wants to disembark while dangling 1,300 feet over Manhattan?).

Incidentally, anyone who's seen the footage of the Hindenburg incinerating at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937 can see evidence of the main difference between zeppelins and blimps: zeppelins have rigid metal skeletons, making them suitable for longer trips in a wider variety of weather conditions (which also makes them expensive). Blimps, on the other hand, are simply shaped balloons with fins and an engine. Oh, and as for the name "blimp"? It dates back to 1916 and mimics the sound made when the balloon is thumped with a finger.

Led and Other Zeppelins
Led Zeppelin is to date the greatest band ever named after a flying machine (take that, Jefferson Airplane). The band's name is completely attributable to Keith Moon, the late and eccentric drummer of The Who. The pessimistic Moon thought the band, originally called the New Yardbirds, would "go over like a lead zeppelin." But the plucky young band reveled in the challenge and quickly adopted the name—with a minor change in spelling.

Excerpted from What's the Difference?