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.

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

Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Charles Darwin Considers Dragons

I am happy to offer the electronic version of my latest book, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, at 50% off ($1.75) during Smashwords‘ July Summer/Winter promotion until the end of July.

This book is the latest Airship Flamel Adventure featuring Professor Nicodemus Flamel, the main character in this series.

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How could it be that cultures all over the world–who had no prior contact with each other–have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up the famous naturalist’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Michael Faraday

Today, Sept. 22, is the great British scientist Michael Faraday’s 226th birthday.

Faraday’s contribution to science are many, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that before Faraday, electricity was batteries, and afterward, it was Edison and Tesla and all the motors, transformers, and generators they unleashed upon the world.

Faraday’s relationship to science can be summed up in two images:  First, Faraday at work at the lab bench in the basement of the Royal Institution, and second, Faraday presiding over a Christmas Lecture–specifically designed for the layman, and for children in particular.

M_Faraday_Lab_H_Moore

 

Faraday_Michael_Christmas_lecture

Professionally, I work in a field that is the direct descendant of Faraday–electrochemistry–so Faraday has always been a bit of a hero for me.  For more information of Faraday’s life and contributions, see here.  I’ve even written Professor Faraday into one of my novels as a major character, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday“.