I like airships. Steampunk loves airships. Many great writers have written them into their stories, even I’ve tried to write them in my stories. I think they have a great aesthetic and are a very cool concept, but I’ve been reading a lot about airships lately and now I’m not so sure..
I’m still half way through the excellent ‘Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine’ by Douglas Botting – the fascinating account of the Graf Zeppelin’s famous circumnavigation, and that’s what got me thinking.
Along with a description of the Graf’s voyage there’s a lot of background and technical information, and fascinating accounts of how vulnerable to adverse weather airships are, how easily they were destroyed when used as weapons of war – and just how risky Hydrogen gas really is.
(Worth noting here that airships flew thousands upon thousands of hours in Germany in absolute safety for a number of years – the Germans seemed to be the only ones who could handle Hydrogen safely).
But I am sorry to say – especially as someone who really digs the idea of airships and enjoys their use in Steampunk writing – that what comes across through all the reading is that airships are, well, a bit rubbish:
hard to control, easily affected by the weather, dangerous, only capable of carrying modest payloads compared to their size and just not very practical.
Which leads me to the point:
Why do we like them so much? What is it about them that makes us stick to the idea even though most airships seen in fiction would never fly, or certainly wouldn’t be able to do the things they are described as doing.
I’ve written mine with extra science and additional properties that I hope allows for sufficient suspension of disbelief, but I’ve got plenty of work to do – more on the weather, how they are controlled, even how they fly.
I still like airships, but I think you have to be careful how you write them.

And if you're interested to read any other of my steampunk/writing related ramblings, then do pop over to http://davebartram.com or, equally, do check out http://www.litopia.com/radio/ where I often can be heard talking about stuff I don't understand and have a little blog too...

Views: 187

Comment by Camryn Forrest on March 8, 2013 at 10:27am

The iconic airship, sigh .... I love it and can't explain precisely why that its. Because they seem like such a simple mode of transportation: fill  it up with a lighter-than-air gas substance, rise and dreamily float to adventures yet to be imagined.
At the moment, I'm working on an airship sculpture. It called to me; and I said "oh FINE. I'll make you." It makes no sense, and yet is perfectly pleasing. The sculpture is titled "Flight of the Warrior Rhino."  Yes, a tiny rhino rides this ship, loaded with peace-time weapons, but ready for a fight.
It's the bizarre nature of airships, that they are taken by the wind to new places that appeals, I think. The perfect mode of transportation for when you don't know where you are going, but you are certain you'll like it when you get there.

Comment by Mark Eliot Schwabe on March 8, 2013 at 12:41pm

Since discovering SteamPunk I have become greatly enamored with airships; I have not had any problem suspending my disbelief.

Take, for example, Baron von Goggles flagship.  Like the majority of airships that I make, it is steam powered.  Unlike others, it is a party boat - complete with dining room, full kitchen and, yes, a wine cellar.  

Why believe all of this?  Well, it says so right in the description!  

Comment by Jeremy Brandon Murphy on March 9, 2013 at 5:29pm

I thoroughly adore airships and most of the ships in the book I'm finishing are hybrids and technically not like the traditional ones from history. Though I have worked hard on developing a scientific background for the world I have created, I'm hoping the reader will be too focused on the characters to worry with analyzing the technology.

Comment by dvsduncan on March 10, 2013 at 9:46pm

I would agree that the early airships were ungainly creations with significant vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Having conceded that, I must point out that we tend to measure them against the abilities of heavier than air craft. That is not entirely fair.

My tool chest contains a number of screw drivers. None of them is any good at driving nails. On the other hand, my hammer drives nails admirably but is rubbish with screws. Each tool and device has its best purpose.

Heavier than air craft are fast and highly maneuverable. They can fly in a variety of weather conditions. They can carry significant weight. They won the race for supremacy of the air based on these qualities and a need to transport goods and people between large population centres.

I freely admit that heavier than air craft are clearly superior in these ways but the very qualities that make them successful have inherent problems. Before the invention of helicopters, no heavier than air craft could take off or land safely without a significant length of flat, solid ground or water in the case of float planes. The need to consume fuel at a rapid rate limits the duration of flights. Matters tend to become quite serious rather quickly if the engines fail.

Air ships require little more than their length to land and can make do with a mooring mast. Airships, with their more modest fuel demands, have greater endurance. They can stay aloft with nominal power and when the worst happens, they tend to crash very slowly. This makes airships ideal for access to remote areas with few established facilities. It makes them well suited to act as observation platforms or signal post.  Today, hybrid airships are being used by the military and under consideration for cargo hauling in the Canadian arctic.

The airships of yesterday were the first steps in an evolving technology. The airships being built today are far more robust and manageable. If steampunk is about introducing advanced technology into a Victorian setting, perhaps we should consider adding some of the characteristics of modern airships to our fictional creations while acknowledging the core strengths of the type. There is a place for airships. We should not compare them with planes but see them for what they are.

Comment by dave bartram on March 16, 2013 at 1:15pm

Oh, I wasn't comparing then to anything, just commenting on what I was reading. Vulnerability to adverse weather seemed to be their greatest weakness, that, and the whole hydrogen thing. I think I said it somewhere that they you have to do something with them to make them more 'useable' or believable, even. But I really wondered why they've attracted so much love in the Steampunk world, especially as it could be argued they more properly fit a more dieselpunk sensibility.

It's an interesting question I think.

Comment by dvsduncan on March 16, 2013 at 2:01pm

Please forgive me if I was overly defensive of my beloved airships. I only meant that familiarity with the aeroplane tends to colour the public view of airships. They seem quaint and cumbersome by comparison. Certainly the best know of these are the behemoths of the Zeppelin Company including the famously tragic Hindenburg. These later airships are squarely in Dieselpunk territory. However, airships were known in the Victorian age as well and were a cutting edge technology for the time. While they might have been more of a novelty in the 1870's, they had developed sufficiently to be a viable means of flight by 1900. And what could be more elegant than sailing majestically through the sky? I believe that is the heart of the romance. Airships are a giant and stately craft. They make a statement. They do everything with grace. (I want one myself but have no place to park it.)

Comment by Dan Kascak on March 17, 2013 at 9:59am

"... hard to control, easily affected by the weather, dangerous" and then some, a properly placed airship in a story can make an effective device for introducing chaos in a story. More complex than just sending in a man with a gun when the story is not just about the airship, it's tantamount to having your cast board Charon’s boat from a safe and dull haven to excitement or jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The element of risk and the edginess of those who pilot them are alreay set in the reader's mind. Things to love as a reader and a writer.

Comment by dave bartram on March 24, 2013 at 11:59am
That Dan, is really the point - their shortcomings make for better narrative than almost anything else about them. Read Dr Eckener's Dream Machine if you haven't already - fascinating.
Comment by Dan Kascak on March 24, 2013 at 7:46pm

A good read and essential for those who would use airships to deliver realistic fiction.

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