100 years in the air started with Zeppelin's passenger service

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Awaiting takeoff, seatback grinding your knees, seatmate snoring, babies wailing and you wonder — who's to blame?

Well, Count von Zeppelin, it turns out.

And now we're celebrating a century of his 1909 bright idea: passenger airline travel.

"Really, it was sort of a desperation measure," says historian Ron Davies of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "He couldn't sell enough of his zeppelins to the military, so he decided to sell tickets."

Once Europe's most famous man, Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin started up the first air service for paying passengers this month in 1909, says Davies, author of Lufthansa: An Airline and Its Aircraft. From 1910 to 1914, more than 34,000 passengers, many of them military officers sizing up airships as weapons, sailed the friendly skies aboard zeppelins.

The technology died away, not that there aren't some who would love to resurrect the civility of such gentle air travel today. But the echoes of Zeppelin's creations are seen still in the blimps (which differ from zeppelins in their lack of a rigid structure) floating over sporting events, and NASA's eight-hour flight Oct. 6 to monitor environmental conditions over San Francisco from the Zeppelin NT004 Eureka, owned by Airship Ventures of Moffet Field, Calif.

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