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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Pirate Epicureans

When considering pirates (or airpirates, if you’re in a steampunky mood), one’s thoughts immediately turn to treasure–large chests of coins, gold bars, and bejeweled bric-a-brac. And I’m sure no self-respecting pirate would pass these by. In reality, however, the definition of “treasure” was broader than what we normally assume.

I give you two examples of pirates who changed western cuisine as we know it.

Hughes’s treatise includes instructions on how to convert cacao to the chocolate drink.

William Hughes was a botanist by training, or at least by avocation. Hughes set out for the Caribbean in the 1630s and eventually found his way onto the crew of a British privateer, sanctioned by the Crown to raid Spanish trading ships. As they made their way around the Caribbean in search of plunder, Hughes had the chance to survey the local flora, how it could be grown, and how the indigenous population prepared and ate it. In 1672, after his piratical days were over, he summarized his findings in a treatise titled The American Physitian. Among the plants he described were the lime (“excellent good against the Scurvie”), sugarcane (“both pleasant and profitable”), and prickly pear (“if you suck large quantities of it, it coloureth the urine of a purple color” which I can only imagine was the basis of many shipboard pranks.)

The largest section of his book concerned cacao which he was so enamored with that he deemed it “the American nectar”. The Spanish had already encountered cacao as early as Columbus in 1502, but it took them over a century to accept it as suitable for drinking. One traveler to Nicaragua held it to be more fit for pigs than people. The British were lagging even further; it wasn’t until Hughes’s book that cacao was fully described in English. The ingredients that Hughes describes to flavor hot chocolate reads like a description of the spice trade itself: “milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz, egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote, vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, sack.” His personal recipe for hot chocolate has been replicated, and sounds delicious!

By the time his book was published, Hughes had settled down, and was working as a botanist in England, puttering around on the country estate of Viscountess Conway. Cacao, and its liquid version, chocolate, however, expanded out from Central America to the entire globe, surpassing even the spreads of other New World crops as tomatoes, corn, or potatoes.

A generation or so later, another English buccaneer, William Dampier, took up the mantle of Pirate-Epicurean. Dampier had a long history as a pirate and privateer, making three complete circumnavigations of the globe and attacking Spanish ships wherever they could be found. He also seems to have eaten his way around the world, finding new and different foods wherever he went. He recorded his findings in detailed diaries which he kept safe in wax-sealed bamboo tubes. After his first circumnavigation (on which in 1688 he was also the first Englishman to land in Australia), he published his diary A New Voyage Around the World in 1697 to great success. In his book he described a wide variety of animals and their edibility–flamingos, Galapagos penguins, manatees. He highlighted the breadfruit from Tahiti as an excellent food, so much so that the British adopted it to feed slaves in their Caribbean plantations (leading indirectly and much later to the mutiny on the Bounty).

William Dampier, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

Dampier also described a fruit “as big as a large lemon … [with] skin [like] black bark, and pretty smooth”–the avocado–and adds that it can be prepared “mixed with sugar and lime juice and beaten together [on] a plate.” Thus, the first recipe in English for guacamole.

His botanical and scientific observations made him famous. Besides compiling lists of edibles, he also monitored the weather, measured currents, and collected botanical specimens throughout his voyages. Both Charles Darwin and Captain Cook carried his book on their voyages. However, he never totally gave up his piratical activities throughout all of his voyages, raiding Spanish ships and ports around the world.

Not a bad side gig for an author.

The Victorian Television

Before the mid-1800s, the typical household owned very few, if any, illustrations.  Newspapers had no pictures; Periodicals had none until the 1840s. Books contained only expensive engravings. Photography was still a science experiment.

However, once photography became main-stream, a revolution occurred that enabled three-dimensional images from around the world to be available in almost every Victorian parlor—the stereoview.

A British scientist, Charles Wheatstone, first developed three-dimensional viewing using an optical instrument that would be recognizable today as a stereoscope. Wheatstone started his work before photography was developed, and experimented by making pairs of hand-drawn images that produced the 3-D effect. Wheatstone also had the advantage of being able to “free view”, i.e., to see the 3-D effect without using an instrument. (Remember those “Magic Eye” books from the 1990s where you had to make your eyes go all weird to see the 3-D effect.)

The trick is to fool your eyes into perceiving that a pair of photographs taken from two different angles appears to be a single three-dimensional image with the ability to see objects close and far away properly maintained. As one stereoview advertisement claimed:

When you look at it through the wonderful lenses of our stereoscope, the figures stand out so plainly that you almost expect to see them move. It’s just like being there.

Early British Stereoscopes, table top and hand-held models.
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Starry Starry Night

One stereotypical character of the Victorian Age is the “gentleman scientist”, men (and they were, with the exception of Lady Ada Lovelace, all men) with the financial wherewithal to putter around in their scientific pursuits without the need to actually work for a living.  Charles Darwin, Humphrey Davy, and Benjamin Franklin were all men of independent means and scientific interests.

Another was William Parsons.  Although less famous than the examples above, William Parsons was fortunate enough to inherit an earldom and a large estate in Ireland upon his father’s death. Now as the 3rd Earl of Rosse, he was free to concentrate on his astronomical pursuits.

Although Ireland may seem to have disadvantages as the site of an astronomical observatory—cloudy skies, moisture, and an elevation close to sea level come to mind—he had plenty of land there and plenty of money. So Lord Rosse started building increasingly larger telescopes at Birr Castle culminating in 1845 in a massive instrument with a 72-inch diameter mirror dubbed “The Leviathan of Parsonstown”. It was unlike any previous telescope, requiring massive machinery to move.  It wasn’t until 1918 when the 100-inch Mount Wilson telescope in California was built that a larger telescope was achieved.

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Lord Rosse’s special interest was solving the nebula problem. Nebulae were faint fuzzy objects in the sky. One group of astronomers believed that they were gas clouds, while the opposition thought them clusters of stars which only appeared fuzzy when observed through telescopes of insufficient size.

And there was no telescope of more sufficient size than the Leviathan.  Observations were made.  Some nebulae were resolved into clusters of stars by the Leviathan’s colossal eye.  Others remained stubbornly fuzzy.  The issue was not resolved. (In fact, those objects in the sky called nebulae are two different things:  gas clouds, and galaxies filled with stars, but that wasn’t determined until even larger telescopes with cameras attached were developed.

And that last point is important.  When the Leviathan was built, photography was in its infancy, and astronomical photography even more so. Observations were recorded by making hand-drawn sketches. One of Lord Rosse’s most famous sketches was of the nebula numbered M-51 which he made in 1845. Lord Rosse drew a nebula with spiral arms and a second smaller nebula interacting with it.  The sketch was so much clearer than what had ever been seen before that it was widely reproduced and published in many popular astronomy books of the day throughout Europe.

Drawing by Lord Rosse of nebula M-51 (now called the Whirlpool Galaxy) through the 72-in Leviathan telescope.
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

It does not take much imagination to recognize that Lord Rosse’s sketch of what we now know as the Whirlpool Galaxy greatly resembles the stellar swirls and eddies of Vincent van Gogh’s immortal painting “Starry Night”  Do we know for certain that van Gogh had seen Lord Ross’s sketch? No. Perhaps he did. Or perhaps his artistic vision could tap into the scientific discoveries being made during that time. The two men weren’t contemporaries—“Starry Night” was painted in 1889, forty-four years after Lord Rosse’s sketch—but the sketch was well known.

Perhaps, Lord Rosse and van Gogh approached the same subject from two different vantage points—science and art.  While “Starry Night” is now fixed for all time, progress on astronomical instruments and the observations they are able to make have continued.  Below is a photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Telescope.  While the abstract billows and curls of Lord Rosse’s sketch appear to us different than they did in 1845, the majesty of the this immense galaxy still provokes awe, just as van Gogh’s does.

M-51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

EBook on Sale!

As part of Smashwords’s “Read an EBook Week”, I’m reducing the price of “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday to half-price ($1.74 in the US).

This story is the first installment in the Steampunk-themed Airship Flamel Adventures Series and follows our hero, Nicodemus Boffin, from the ash heaps of the East End of London to the pinnacle of British science.

It’s a ripping yarn of airships, alchemy, and airpirates, set against the frontiers of Science!

Available at Smashwords for most ebook formats.

And if you enjoy this book, the next books in the series are “Mr. Darwin’s Dragon” and “To Rule the Skies.

Enjoy!