Monday, November 2, 2009

Steampunk Aeronautics

As I promised Stephanie Thornton in the Friday comments, today's entry in Free the Princess's steampunk catalog will be about airships and the aeronautics surrounding them.

Airships such as zeppelins, hot-air balloons, dirigibles, and blimps, which are collectively known as lighter-than-air aircraft, operate based on the principle of buoyancy. The principles of buoyancy were first described by Archimedes (the genius Greek as I call him), and are also the reason why ships float and submersibles sink.

Now, the three above types of airships are also called rigid (zeppelin), semi-rigid, and nonrigid (blimp). The first manned flight of any airship, though the buoyancy concept is several thousand years old, came about in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers (Joseph and Etienne) flew their hot-air balloon over their hometown of Annonay, France.

The Montgolfiere balloon, 1783.

According to, the first passengers were a sheep, a goat, and a duck. The history of using animals as test pilots goes back quite a bit, apparently. In October 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes became the first human passengers in the Montgolfiere balloon; the balloon was in free flight during that October journey, meaning that it wasn't tethered to the ground.

Subsequent advances added flaps to control the balloon's flight (Jean Blanchard, 1785), and crafted a silk balloon that was filled with hydrogen gas (Jacques Charles, 1783) instead of the superheated air that filled the Montgolfiere balloon.

Blanchard's hydrogen balloon with flaps, 1785

These early balloons couldn't be navigated very well (at all really), and several advances were made to improve that aspect of their design. One of the first was adding an air screw that operated similar to a rudder on a ship; the balloon's shape was also elongated into the cigar that we know today.

Steam power as a method of propulsion and navigation came into play in 1852, when Henri Giffard's dirigible was the first to add the system onto an airship. Giffard's invention flew from Paris to Trappes, a distance of 17 miles, but didn't have enough power to fly against the wind in order to make the return journey.

Giffard's airship, 1852

The top speed of Giffard's airship was 5 miles an hour, which was the top speed until Brazilian Albert Santos Dumont crafted his gasoline-powered airships in the late 1890s. Airships, for lack of a better phrase, really took off after Dumont's innovations.

In 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German count, designed and flew the first successful rigid airships. His designs were so successful that rigid airships are commonly called Zeppelins in his honor. It's these rigid airships that figure strongly into steampunk, sometimes with elaborate designs as seen in the Girl Genius online comic (Castle Wulfenbach) and in other literature in the same genre (Keith Thompson's War Zeppelin).

The LZ-126, USS Los Angeles, 1924

The above photo is of one of the Zeppelins that were ubiquitous before the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that pretty much ended the commercial use of lighter-than-air aircraft.

Because of this, in fact, one of the easiest ways to show that you're writing steampunk is to include zeppelins zipping across the skylanes or other aerial vessels that aren't airplanes, helicopters, or gliders.

For design considerations, take a look back at the Steam's Limitations Series.

I hope that answered your question, Stephanie. If it didn't, let me know and I'll do another post with some nitty-gritty aerial details.


L. T. Host said...

*Puts on monocle*


(Can I put on a monocle if I'm a girl?) :)

Joshua McCune said...

You are a research hound! Thanks for more awesome info.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

I certainly won't stop you.

Bane --

Thank you for the kind words, sir.

Susan R. Mills said...

This is so interesting. I remember reading The Sin Killer series by Larry McMurtry (sp?), and I was fascinated by several scenes in which they traveled in hot air balloons. I was surprised to learn that they had developed that kind of air craft back in that time (1800s I think). Now, to learn it even happened sooner than that, I am amazed. Thanks for your dedicated research habits.

L. T. Host said...

In keeping with comedic effect today, have you ever seen the Montgolfiere balloon Monty Python sketch?

I love that one, haha... actually, it's more of a whole episode of Flying Circus that encompasses the balloon sketch. I also seem to remember it's slightly NSFW, as most Python skits are.

Gary Corby said...

This is very, very cool. Thanks so much for posting it!

I never knew someone put a steam engine in a balloon. There's got to be a story in that.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Wow! I can't even count all the new wrinkles I got for my brain. The hydrogen balloon with flaps is pretty interesting- it reminds me of the Wizard of Oz.

I got a kick out of the animal test subjects (although I'm sure the animals didn't) simply because I teach my kids about Mutnik and the various monkeys Russia and the U.S. sent into space in the early days of the space program.

Which, on a side note, my word verification for this comment is space. I don't think I've ever had a real word before and this one is rather fitting!

Thanks so much for answering my question- you did a phenomenal job!