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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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.

Time’s up for “curfew”

As I write, I’ve got 40 minutes to get inside before I could potentially be arrested. San Jose, California has a covid-related curfew that makes it unlawful to be out between the hours of 10pm and 5am. I’m not sure how strictly the curfew is being obeyed, not to mention enforced. It was the latest increasingly strict measure required by people not obeying the previous measure.

When I was growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, it was well-understood by all us kids that the time to come in the house for the evening was when the streetlights turned on. The lights were controlled by a photocell, so we all got longer after-dinner play times during the summer. It was a simple system based on an indirect measure of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and it worked. Pleas for longer time were rarely granted.

Being a writer, I ponder the origins of interesting words that I encounter. Recently, I came across a picture of a brass fireplace implement called a “curfew” and wondered how it related to the modern meaning.

The curfew was a metal or terra cotta dome that was placed over the remains of the coals in the hearth or stove to prevent the fire from spreading while also preventing the coals from being extinguished. (“Curfew” stems from the French “couvre-feu”, to cover the fire.) It was a fine line between the disaster of a house fire and the hassle of re-kindling a cold fire in the morning. A bell would toll announcing the curfew—-the time to cover up the hearth fire for the night. The practice is ancient and predates the Norman Invasion in England.

Examples of Curfews

Of course, now the curfew is meant to get everyone out of the bars and in their home to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Let’s hope that don’t need either type of curfew for very much longer in the future.

Special Sale on “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday”

170409 Cover

As part of Smashwords’ “Authors Give Back” sale, I’ve reduced the price of the first book in the Airship Flamel Adventures series, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday” (e-book version) to FREE until April 20, 2020.

Here’s the synopsis:

Nicodemus Boffin rose from a boyhood in the ash heaps of East London to reach the pinnacles of British science when he is mentored by the great scientist, Michael Faraday. When Nicodemus finds a secret laboratory notebook in which Faraday has described incomprehensible experiments, Nicodemus wonders if his mentor has discovered a new science, or lost his faculties. Nicodemus’s rival, the Viscount Whitehall-Barnes, seeks to gain the notebook by any means necessary to study the descriptions of a strange orange mineral with unusual properties which he believes is the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone. Realizing that the Viscount must never learn the secrets of the orange stone, Nicodemus takes action to keep the knowledge hidden, protect his family, and preserve the legacy of his mentor.

Available in many e-book formats:  epub mobi pdf lrf pdb txt html

Sale ends on April 20, 2020.

I hope it gives you a bit of an escape in these anxious times.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/719026

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

boston_1919_molasses_disaster_-_el_train_structure

Damage to the Boston Elevated Railway from the molasses flood.

Growing up in Boston, I heard stories from my parents and grandparents of the molasses flood when a huge tank of molasses burst sending waves of the sticky stuff down streets, engulfing everything .

It turns out that tomorrow 15 January 2019 is the centennial of that most bizarre tragedy.  Mental Floss has a good article about it.

Thanksgiving in the US

On Thursday, 22 November, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  While, I’m guessing, no other country celebrates giving thanks for what one has on the Fourth Thursday of November (Even Canada celebrates Thanksgiving in October, which I’ve always attributed–perhaps wrongly–to the shorter growing season in the Great White North.), most cultures have some sort of thanks giving holiday.

Google has published an interesting article using the plethora of data they acquire through people asking questions like, “How do I cook a turkey?” or maybe, “Where can I buy a pre-cooked turkey?”, if they were caught short with the unusually early Fourth Thursday in November this year.  However, a couple of interesting trends emerge from Google’s analysis.  First, pretty much only the northeastern US actually roasts turkey.  I grew up in Massachusetts where those religious refugees, the Pilgrims, apocryphally celebrated the first Thanksgiving, and I can’t think of preparing turkey any other way than roasting.  What Google categorizes as “Fried”, I have to think must be deep-fried, and I would like to watch that happen, if only for the potential pyrotechnics.

Apple pie, another New England tradition, falls to third place behind pumpkin and pecan.  Pecan I’ll leave to the southerners.  I don’t even like nuts in my fruit cake.  The number one Thanksgiving pie is pumpkin, which I know some people (like my wife) love.  I find the very idea of making a pie from the same slimy thing I carve up for Halloween disgusting.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to a blog post I wrote almost four (four!) years ago:  As American As Apple Pie?

Enjoy!