The Steampunk Guide to Airships

Airships are a familiar technology in the steampunk genre. Aerostat (lighter-than-air) in design, they differ from the simple hot air balloon in their ability to be steered using propellers and rudders. Today, airships have lost out to the speed, manoeuvrability and comparative safety of the airplane. But the development of the airship long precedes the airplane. The sense of majesty and innovation makes them a perfect steampunk accompaniment.

A Brief History

The first hot air balloon was invented by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in France, 1783. Originally paper manufacturers, the Montgolfier brothers experimented with floating paper and fabric bags until they discovered that a flame caused the air inside the bags to heat, expand and rise. They used this discovery on a greater scale and invented the first passenger hot air balloon.

But their glory didn’t last long. Less than two weeks later, French physicist Jacque Charles invented the hydrogen balloon, which flew higher and for longer than the Montgolfier balloon. Later, Jean Blanchard designed a hydrogen balloon with external flapping devices attached to the hanging gondola to control its flight.

However, it didn’t work particularly well. The manoeuvrability of the balloon was a constant problem and not easily overcome. Eventually, the shape of the balloon was elongated to make it more aerodynamic, and steam-powered rotating screws and propellers were used to push the craft through the air. Henri Giffard, another French engineer, was the first to use steam-powered propellers – and thus in 1852 the dirigible was born.

In 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin stretched cloth over an aluminium frame to create the first successful rigid-framed airship – the zeppelin.

Types of Airship

All airships have the same four principle elements: a balloon filled with lighter-than-air gas, a gondola that hangs beneath the balloon, engine-driven propellers for propulsion, and rudders to enable steering. However, there are three main structures an airship might take: non-rigid, semi-rigid and rigid.

Non-rigid – Also known as blimps, this type of airship uses pressure to maintain its shape. As the craft rises, the air expands as the pressure outside decreases. The craft uses valves and harvested air from the engine exhausts to control its altitude.

Semi-rigid – This type of airship also uses pressure to maintain the balloon’s shape, but it also has a metal keel that extends along the base of the balloon to help distribute the weight of the gondola and engines.

Rigid – Zeppelins are rigid airships. They keep their shape through the aluminium framework, whether they are filled with gas or not. They contain multiple gas cells in the rubber-coated fabric envelope, each of which can be filled or emptied separately.

Metal-clad Airships

Though not obvious, there are many advantages to a metal-clad airship. Various studies, carried out by Ralph H. Upson at the start of the Twentieth Century, proved that the crafts are superior in strength and agility. Furthermore, they can be built at a lower cost to the usual fabric-covered airship and, surprisingly, they are lighter in weight, too.

However, only four such airships have ever been built, and only two of those managed to fly. David Schwarz’s first attempt collapsed on inflation in 1893; his second metal-clad airship managed to take flight in 1897, but collapsed on landing. The Slate Aircraft Corporation built a metal-clad airship in 1929, but it never flew.

The ZMC-2 (Zeppelin Metal Clad 200,000 ft. Capacity) was built in the USA and was the only successful metal-clad airship ever built. It flew from 1929 to 1941, when it was scrapped. Though it was nicknamed ‘The Tin Bubble’ or ‘Tinship,’ the ZMC-2 was the first aircraft to be made of Alclad, a corrosion-resistant aluminium. It used helium for its buoyancy.

Hydrogen vs. Helium

Hydrogen and helium are the main lighter-than-air gasses used in airship flight. Though hydrogen is much lighter and less expensive than helium, it is highly flammable. Most airships use helium for this reason, though it means the maximum load they can carry is much less.

Steampunk Airships

Steampunk is a diverse genre. Most science-fiction oriented steampunk will use airships based around the technology outlined in this article so far. Fantasy-based steampunk can have a lot of creative fun with the concept of the airship, from flying battle ships to flying castles.

Flying Ships  

Usually modelled on carracks and galleons, 15th to 18th century sea ships, these airships function in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are hung from (or sit upon) gaseous balloons, and sometimes they elevate as if by magic or another invented energy. Quite often there will be a lot of propellers in their construction, suggesting a helicopter-like lift.

The Final Fantasy video games are renowned for their airships, and this type often appeared in the early games of the series, such as the Invincible in Final Fantasy III. The airships become more futuristic as the series goes on, from the more realistic Blackjack (Final Fantasy VI) which is based on a standard zeppelin, to the Strahl (Final Fantasy XII) which has a folding wing design.

Flying Castles

Though not technically airships, flying castles appear in a variety of steampunk tales. In Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986) the great construction is powered by a magical crystal. In Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004, and the novel by Diana Wynne Jones) the power comes from Calcifer, a magical fire demon. And in Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo, 2004) a strange ball-like apparatus that contains the condensed power of pure mineral water is used as an energy source.

Animal Hybrids

In Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, the title airship is devised from animal DNA. It has its own unique ecosystem in which the animals create hydrogen, providing the ship’s buoyancy. The bulk of the ship is created from the DNA of a whale.

The airship has a long history of development during the era in which steampunk is usually associated. It embodies the adventurous spirit of both exploration and technological advancement. From metal-clad zeppelins to flying whales, when it comes creating airships, the sky is the limit.