Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Steam Cannons

Some of you might remember my prior post on steampunk weaponry, which is good as this plays fairly strongly into that. A steam cannon is, as one would expect, a cannon that fires its projectiles using steam instead of black powder as the projecting force.

From the ever-useful Wikipedia:

"Leonardo da Vinci first proposed the idea of a steam-powered cannon that would launch a projectile using only heat and water. Some sources say Archimedes was the original source of the idea.

The device would consist of a large metal tube, preferably copper as it is the best conductor of heat, which would be placed in a furnace. One end of the tube would be capped and the other loaded with a projectile. Once the tube reached a high enough temperature, a small amount of water would be injected in behind the projectile. In theory, Leonardo da Vinci believed, the water would rapidly expand into vapour, blasting the projectile out the front of the barrel."

Experimental prototype of 17.5 mm steam cannon.
Russian Empire
, 1826-29

The Holman Mk II Projector, used in the early part of World War II, used steam to fire a small projectile up to 600 feet. The Royal British Navy contracted Holmans (a maker of machine tools) to build the Projector after seeing it tested. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the weapon was that it left a small cloud of black smoke after it fired. This had the unexpected, but welcome, consequence that the Luftwaffe believed many British vessels were more heavily armed than they actually were.

Now, the writer of steampunk has a lot of freedom if they decide to use steam cannons. You can attach a boiler and pistons to the rear, mount it on a tank, ship or zeppelin, or even have cannons like that be so rare the only place they are is around government buildings.

In terms of design description, all you really have to say is "steam cannon" and you're pretty much set. "Steam-powered cannon" if you want to get really technical of course.

Another post will deal with why you might want to use certain steampunk items, such as steam cannons, when there are perfectly serviceable real-life alternatives.


L. T. Host said...

You are officially my go-to person for steam and steam-powered machinery. Well, you have been for a while, but now it's OFFICIAL. I kinda want a pirate ship with steam-powered cannons now. How awesome would that be?

I wish I had stuff like this to share on my blog-- all I know in relation to my writing is
Greek mythology, which Gary Corby covers pretty well, and Germanic/ Roman Europe.

Joshua McCune said...

I've been dealing w/ magnets at work, so I'm waiting for a post on railguns (sure, perhaps might not fit into the steam punk canon - ha, get it :); sorry, long day -, but seems like it'd be in the ballpark).

Natalie said...


I'm not sure why your post made me think of this but my husband is totally addicted to the show Mythbusters and I think they did one where they built a steam powered machine gun based on plans from a few centuries ago--it was cool. I think it kind of worked.

They've built other steam powered stuff too (though I can't remember what).

Stephanie Thornton said...

Man, I never would have thought to power a canon using steam. What a great idea!

Now I'm wondering if I'm just a dimwit- I saw an exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci's drawings when I was in Venice. They made models from the drawings and it was super cool, even though I didn't understand all of them, not having an engineer's mind.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

Daww, you're makin' me blush. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Bane --

I'm tempted to do a post on railguns, seeing as the theory was first patented in 1922 and would fall quite nicely within the steampunk purview (depending on which direction you wanted to take the science).

Natalie --

Mythbusters did in fact do a show on steam cannons. I didn't mention it here because it wasn't pertinent to what I intended to talk about.

Stephanie --

I have a book that collects da Vinci's notebooks -- sans drawings unfortunately -- and I absolutely love it as a resource.

Susan R. Mills said...

Seriously, how big is your brain? How do you accumulate all this knowledge. It's fascinating.

Concord Carpenter said...

very cool, love this kind of stuff!

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

See my above comment to L.T.

Concord Carpenter --

Welcome to the randomness, hope you enjoy it!