One oft-told story involves the use of the Empire State Building as a mooring mast for airships like the Hindenburg. It sounds plausible. The spire of the Empire State Building certainly resembles a mooring mast, and if King Kong is not scaling the building, it appears that there’s plenty of room to moor. And no self-respecting steam- or diesel-punk would forgo the chance of mooring his airship at the Art Deco splendor of the Empire State Building.
However, oft-told stories can take on a life of their own in the cold and windy light of day.
The 1930s were the heyday of lighter-than-air dirigibles with the German airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg flying travelers around the globe in luxury that could only be compared to that of the most opulent hotels or glamorous trains. Although the US and Britain had no commercial airships, they advanced the capabilities of military airships over time. Airships on the transatlantic route generally landed at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey which had the facilities needed to maintain and service the ships. However, Lakehurst is quite some distance from the passengers’ typical destination of New York City. So, having a landing spot closer to New York would be a great benefit for transatlantic flights.
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.
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.)
(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?)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.
Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.
As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.
Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.
So, what is Steampunk Architecture?
Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?
Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.
So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.
Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.
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.