Vacuum Airships: Reality or Steampunk Fantasy?

We steampunks love our airships.  Not because they’re particularly efficient or fearsome flying machines, but because they provide the most amusement per pound than any other vehicle.

There is a body of science that describes the performance of airships—much of which is blithely ignored or at least subverted in steampunk stories and artwork. My stories—the Airship Flamel Adventures—feature an airship whose characteristics have at best a tenuous relationship with actual Airship Science. So I know whereof I speak. However, I recently discovered a novel airship technology that seems completely impractical (and being more impractical than a standard airship is quite an accomplishment) yet which contains just enough real science to keep things interesting.

Airship of the future conceived in 1899.

Airships, including hot air balloons, work because they have a large volume filled with a gas that is less dense than air.  The gas weighs less than air, so it wants to float. If you add in the weight of the rest of the airship (such as the gondola and the cells containing the lifting gas) and the ship still floats, then you’re in business!  You’ve got an airship that will fly.  (If not, however, your airship sits obstinately on the ground.)

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Flowers and Stars

James Lick was one of those persons who, through hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and sometimes just good luck, managed to accomplish more than seems possible in one lifetime.  I find that many of these people seem to have lived during the Victorian Age, when opportunities were ripe, and a good dose of gumption could result in a dramatically improved situation.

Portrait of James Lick

James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 into fairly unexceptional circumstances; his father was a carpenter and young James followed suit.  He eventually learned the piano-making trade and after tuning his skills in New York, he shipped out to Buenos Aires which seemed to be a good market for pianos.

Unfortunately, Lick’s success was initially hampered by his inability to speak Spanish, as well as sporadic South American political unrest. He bounced around the continent for almost 30 years, his business becoming prosperous. Eventually, he tired of the social upheavals, leaving South America completely and ending up in San Francisco with his piano-making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate to sell for a friend. The chocolate sold quickly, prompting Lick to send a letter back to his friend Domingo Ghirardelli advising him to move his chocolate business up to California.

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