History Behind The Card: French Zodiac Type
Card #19 of 50, W.D. & H.O. Wills, Aviation series 1910
Maurice Mallet 1861 – 1926, (birthplace?), France
Captain Paul Jovis (birth date and citizenship unknown) 18xx – 1891, France
Joseph Spiess (September 10, 1838 – March 31, 1917), Mulhouse, France
If you think the term ‘Zodiac’ is familiar to you beyond the constellation shapes, then read on and learn how a balloon helped form a major 21st century company that saves lives.
The Zodiac as a dirigible, owes its origins to Maurice Mallet, who along with France’s other famous balloonist, Paul Jovis, founded the Union Aéronautique de France in an effort to develop new ballooning and aeronautics techniques and equipment.
Mallet and Jovis did a lot of ballooning together, and a few days after this blog article is published, I will publish another blog detailing one such account.
After Jovis’ death in 1891, Mallet continued ballooning and became renowned when he made the longest balloon flight from Paris to Walhen, Germany over a period of three days in 1892.
Sparking a country-wide interest in ballooning, Mallet helped form the Société Mallet, Mélandri et de Pitray in 1897 and soon began constructing balloons for other enthusiasts.
The company was renamed Ateliers de Constructions Aeronautiques by Mallet in 1899 and while others sought to create heavier-than-air craft, Mallet continued his work on balloons, creating new fabrics and technologies before concentrating on dirigibles, forming another new company with Count Henri de la Vaulx called the Société Française des Ballons Dirigeables (French Airship Company) on March 5, 1908.
In 1909, Mallet created a new type of foldable, dirigible—the Zodiac—that was easy to transport and set up, and was targeted for private enthusiasts as well as for business purposes, specifically the advertising sector. He then renamed his company Société Française des Ballons Dirigeables et d’Aviation Zodiac. Yes… that Zodiac company – the one that builds… well… keep reading.
Mention must be made of the series of Zodiac airships, that back in 1909 were constructed first for pleasure, and years later for military purposes.
The Wills’s card above shows the Zodiac III, as do the two immediate photos below.
Ranging from a small vessel of 1,396- cubic meters (49,300-cubic feet) with one 45 horsepower motor, to larger craft of 22,936.65-cubic meters (810,000-cubic feet) with four 250-horsepower engines, their various performances made them suited to a variety of uses.
The year 1911 marked the end of a transition. The enterprise was no longer a craft venture producing to order. It was now an industrial company manufacturing in large runs and bidding for procurement contracts.
Another interesting airship was the ‘Spiess’ (which I think translates to ‘Spit’), a French rigid-type, constructed in 1913 of timber by the Zodiac company—it was a success even when compared with contemporary zeppelins (see Wills’s card #23 – eventually… we’ll get there).
Other rigid -type dirigibles – the zeppelins – are constructed with aluminum, but the Spiess was made with hollow wooden beams.
An interesting fact, is that Spiess was designed by Joseph Spiess, and engineer who had actually first conceived of the rigid-type dirigible, and filed a patent for it, back in 1873… the year before Ferdinand von Zeppelin began designing his rigid-type dirigibles that would become known as zeppelins.
Unfortunately for Spiess, he did not build his first rigid-type dirigible until Zodiac helped construct the Spiess in 1913.
Interior of the Spiess dirigible. Photograph courtesy of BJJS.
The Zodiac company had actually given the dirigible the name Zodiac XII but, when it came time to fly, the air craft had the name “SPIESS” in uppercase painted along the side of the balloon’s envelope.
The Spiess was the only French Zodiac rigid airship built, and was the longest French airship built before the World War I.
Spiess specifications are:
- Length: 113- and 140-meters (see below);
- Balloon Diameter: 41.2-meters;
- Balloon Volume: 16,400 cubic meters;
- Engines: two Chenu motors with 200 horsepower each.
The Spiess was designed from the original 1873 patents of Joseph Spiess. The first attempt at building the airship had it at 113-meters long, and when it first flew on April 13, 1913, Mallet and Spiess agreed that the Spiess was underpowered and needed more lift.
The Spiess’ envelope was enlarged to 140 meters to hold three more gas cells. They also added a second engine.
but later it was extended to 140-meters.
Here’s a film of the Spiess first flying on April 15, 1913!
Spiess then presented the airship to the French government as a gift. After further trials it was not accepted by the French military, because their view was that smaller non-rigid types would be more effective.
The Spiess airship seems to have been broken-up in 1914.
Even before this, however, Mallet had begun designing and constructing aeroplanes, constructing a biplane for famed French aviator Maurice Farman in 1909.
With the advent of WWI in 1914, Mallet’s company was building balloons and dirigibles solely for France’s military, as the craft were thought to be useful to drop bombs on the enemy. But…
… Mallet was also building aeroplanes, and ramped up production to create over eight aeroplanes a month to provide a better option for bombing runs.
Because he who lives by the sword often dies by the sword, Mallet’s company lacked customers when the war ended. In an effort to stave off financial ruin, Mallet began building patrol boats for the French navy in 1920 which helped keep afloat its dirigible interests so that it could introduce a semi-rigid dirigible in 1930.
In 1934, Zodiac developed the first prototype inflatable boats, which became known in France as ‘zodiacs’.
With the Zodiac company now an expert in inflatable fabrics, techniques and materials, it tried its hand at constructing an inflatable kayak, which then led the company to produce an inflatable boat capable carrying torpedoes and other bombs.
Zodiac continued to be successful, diversifying into office furniture, manure spreaders, aviation and aerospace-related products while continuing to build inflatable dirigibles, balloons, life boats and leisure boats.
By the 1990s, Zodiac was well-established as a major global player in marine and aerospace sectors and began to create airbag systems for automobiles, and nowadays, the company is still a major aeronautics manufacturer—a fit business for an aviation pioneer company.
Through a long list of acquisitions, has Zodiac S.A. has built itself into a diversified operation with leadership status in such niche product areas as aircraft escape slides, parachute systems, helicopter floats, and flexible fuel tanks (Aeronautics Equipment division); passenger seats and on-board toilets and sanitation systems (Airline Equipment); inflatable boats and rescue rafts, above-ground swimming pools, and related equipment; and inflatable toys (Marine-Leisure).
Zodiac’s customers include Airbus, Boeing, various departments of defense, and most of the world’s civil airlines. The company generates the majority of its sales (64 percent) through the civil aviation sector, including some 28 percent of sales from its aircraft seating operations alone.
Zodiac’s inflatable boats continue to provide some 13 percent of sales, however, and have made the Zodiac brand name known throughout the boating world.
That world has increasingly leaned toward North America, which accounted for 54 percent of Zodiac’s sales in 1999. French sales accounted for 17 percent of the company’s revenues.
The chief architect of Zodiac’s growth from a small single-product company in the late 1970s to a diversified manufacturer and distributor with nearly (French Franc) ₣5.5-billion in annual sales is chairman and president Jean-Louis Gerondeau.
A public company that helped initiate Paris’s secondary market in the early 1980s, Zodiac continues to be controlled by its founding families, which hold 30 percent of the company’s shares and some 40 percent of voting rights. This position helps to protect the company from the possibility of a hostile takeover.
Click HERE for Zodiac company information.