The Dorniers trace their origins to a French family from the department of Isere.
In 1862, Dauphin Dornier, a language teacher, came to Kempten in Bavaria. Dornier settled there for good, following the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War and married a daughter of a local family. On 14 May 1884 their first son, Claude Dornier, was born in Kempten. Claude grew up in his parent’s home and attended a local school, with science being his prime interest. He attended Technische Hochschule (University of Applied Sciences) in Munich and in 1907 Claude Dornier earned his degree in engineering. Shortly after graduating, junior engineer Dornier was employed at Machinenfabrik Nagel (Machine factory Nagel) in Karlsruhe where he worked on strength calculations. After leaving the Machinenfabrik Nagel, Dornier was briefly employed at Eisenwerkes Kaiserslautern (Kaiserslautern Iron works) in Kaiserslautern.
Claude Dornier joined Luftshiffbau Zeppelin, makers of the famous all-metal rigid airships, in 1910 where his abilities soon attracted Count Zeppelin’s attention. In 1911, he began fundamental research to improve the strength of light sections and metal profiles. In May 1911, he succeeded in proving that the flanges increase the rigidity of aluminum angle sections by performing tests, which considerably influenced the profile of thin, stressed components. At the same time, Dornier was conducting numerous studies into the possibilities of further developing rigid airships.
By 1913, Count Zeppelin had gained such confidence in Claude Dornier’s capabilities that he appointed him as his personal scientific advisor. In close cooperation with the Count, Claude Dornier began preliminary design work on a giant steel structure airship for transatlantic service. The Count soon came to realize that in order to fully exploit Claude Dornier’s potential, he would need to provide him with better facilities.
Early in 1914, the “Do” Department was established within the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. The so nicknamed “Carbonium” facility, a small gasworks located on the edge of the existing airship factories, provided Claude Dornier with space for two offices, a small workshop and a test area where he worked with an assistant engineer, several technicians and draftsmen. At his new facility, Claude Dornier continued research into the designs of rigid airships however this did not last long. Motivated by the emergence of a completely new means of lighter than air flight technology, his interests shifted towards airplane engineering.
Almost immediately following the outbreak of World War I on 28 July 1914, Count Zeppelin decided to build airplanes and he established Seemoos facility near Manzell, Germany, for this purpose. The Count gave Claude Dornier the opportunity to use his own design ideas for airplane construction. As a result of increasing airplane construction, new and large facilities for their time were constructed at this location.
Instead of relying on contemporary methods used to date, the Count confident in Claude Dornier’s ingenuity entrusted him with the task of building giant metal flying boats at the new dockyard. This leap of faith laid the cornerstone in the evolution of metal airplanes. In light of the new task Claude Dornier began to evaluate and apply his research. The new problems however, could be solved only through a professional engineering approach based upon strict scientific criteria. The principles he proposed were to guide the entire development of the airplane industry in future decades and implied that all stressed-structure components should be of metal, steel or aluminum, depending upon the stress loads involved. Similarly, sections rolled from sheets and formed in accordance with the performance requirements should be of light metal construction and must carry loads. Finally, components must be attached by rivets or screws.
During World War I, Dornier worked on Zeppelin-Lindau Rs. I flying boat, which was ready for the first flight on 12 October 1915. This was the first Dornier designed airplane and was the first German airplane to use duralumin in its construction. Sadly, this airplane was destroyed when strong wind in the early dawn of 22 December broke it’s moorings and ran it aground where it was broken up by the waves. Claude Dornier did not allow this to set back his ambitions and by 30 June the following year the next Dornier designed flying boat, Zeppelin-Lindau Rs. II, took off. During the war years, metallic structures were further developed and applied to series of smaller airplanes. On 3 November 1917 the stressed skin design was born with the first flight of the Zeppelin-Lindau CL. I, a two-seat escort and ground attack biplane. Structural frames and smooth sheet skin designed by Claude Dornier were slowly becoming the design standard of the future. The next flying boat to be successfully flown was Rs. III which proved to have excellent characteristics in heavy North and Baltic Sea weather conditions. The last airplane to fly before the end of World War I was D I, a single-seat fighter, which flew on 4 June 1918. Both the fuselage and the cantilever wing were stressed skin designs and it was equipped with a jettisonable fuel tank beneath the fuselage. These features were ahead of their time. The end of the war brought other ambitious plans to an abrupt end however Dornier’s amassed flying boat design and building experience would guide him in the years to come.
Shortly after the end of World War I, the German aviation industry all but came to an end. The Zeppelin factories at Reutin and Zech near Lindau were closed and almost all of the staff was discharged. At the Seemoos facility, some 100 employees were producing buckets and wash boilers barely keeping the doors open. Claude Dornier however, continued his work against the dim prospects for the future, working on the two engine Gs. I flying boat, a predecessor to the famous Wal. In 1922, airplane manufacturing was prohibited by law and the Seemoos yard had to be closed. Claude Dornier decided to resume activities outside of Germany where at Rorschach, on the Swiss side of Bodensee (Lake Constance), he leased a small wooden building with a ramp leading into the lake.
Following a suggestion by Dr. Hugo Eckener, the inter-war manager of Zeppelin Werke Gmbh Lindau, in 1922 the factory was renamed to Dornier Mettalbauten GmbH and the company offices were moved from Lindau to Friedrichshafen. In 1923 the company purchased the nearby facilities of Flugbau Lindau in Manzell and the small dockyard at Seemoos was finally closed.
In the fall of 1924, the Technische Universität (Technical University) in Stuttgart presented an honorary engineering doctorate to Claude Dornier in “recognition of his merits in advancing airplane engineering.
As the company continued to prosper in the second half of the 1920s more and more airlines were using Dornier airplanes and asked for a quicker delivery. With the distance between the design offices at Friedrichshafen and the production facility at Marina di Pisa, precious time was being wasted in constant back and forth motion by the staff. Claude Dornier discovered a suitable site at Alternhein on the Swiss side of Bodensee where he founded the Aktiengesellschaft für Dornier-Flugzeuge in the summer of 1926, which resulted in the Marina di Pisa facility being sold.
In 1929, design emphasis began to switch from commercial to military airplanes, particularly bombers. Next year in early the 1930s the world economic crisis was casting its shadow on the aviation industry. The Zeppelin Group was losing interest in airplanes. Claude Dornier used this opportunity to acquire the remaining shares of Dornier Metallbauten GmbH from Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, thus opening the way to new projects. When orders started to pick up again in 1933, a new branch was established; Norddeutsche Dornier-Werke GmbH in Wismar on the Baltic. Not long thereafter factories in Lübeck, Münich-Neuaubing and Münich -Oberpfaffenhofen were opened.
On 17 October 1931 the three engine Do Y bombers were manufactured at Altenrhein for Switzerland and Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in the same quest for export orders, tactical and reconnaissance airplanes Do 10, Do C3, Do C2A and Do 22 were developed.
In July 1935 the Dornier Metallbauten GmbH had a total of 7,080 employees. In 1937 factory changed its name from Dornier Metallbauten GmbH to Dornier-Werke GmbH. On 1 October 1938 the Dornier factory in Friedrichshafen had 10,375 employees, which made a total of 7.1% of the entire German airplane industry. This number increased by 25% in the previous 9 months of the same year due to the high demand. Late in 1939, a total of 17,980 employees were working at the Dornier factories.