Edna Mode says “No sails!”

I write Steampunk, but I seldom write *about* Steampunk. Why not? Well for one thing, I’m not an expert. Not that I should worry. The internet is chock-full of unexpert opinion, unexpert advice and unexpert analysis. I merely have to put my finger tips to my keyboard and join them. Here we go!

AIRSHIPS are a staple of the steampunk world, along with Corsets, Mad Scientists, Ray-guns, Villains, Lantern-jawed Heroes, Various Monsters, Adventuresome Women, and the Frequent Removal of Clothing. (All of which I cheerfully tossed into my first novel, and the next, and the next …)

But back to airships. Writers love them. Illustrators love them. They are the penultimate Rule-of-Cool machine. Once you give your characters an airship they can roam the world, conduct warfare, hunt the elusive sky-kraken/sky-whale/sky-kitten or whatever your imagination requires. Your characters can do science, fend off sky pirates, get laid in luxury. you can put entire cities into airships, perpetually roaming the world. Rule your empire from above. Go into space! It’s all possible as long as you completely ignore those pesky Laws of Physics. (Damn them!)

So here, in no particular order, are the mistakes that writers and illustrators make:

Sails.1

1) SAILS.

Airships with sails are the most common visual image you will see. Every second illustrator does it. Do an image search; there will be hundreds of them. Sure, the art is fantastic. The visuals are fantastic.  I know it’s fantasy. But I am going to be The Po-Faced Nerd and point out the absurdity of the notion. Anyone who has done any amount of actual research would have come across Jean-Pierre Blanchard who, in 1784, discovered that paddles and sails were utterly ineffective.

The science has been DONE, people! 231 years ago.

But writers still persist with this romantic, and utterly useless, idea. I get really annoyed with it. REALLY ANNOYED. Call me a person with Asperger’s Syndrome if you will, but I get so mad. IT’S THE PHYSICS, PEOPLE! PUTTING SAILS ON AN AIRSHIP IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS PUTTING SAILS ON A SUBMARINE!

DIGRESSION: If you want to understand the real-world physics of airships, think of them as submarines. The submarine starts on the bottom of the ocean, rises, and drives itself around using propellers. To go upwards it must ‘blow its tanks’ – inject air into buoyancy tanks (from compressed-air tanks, BTW). This ejects some water, and the thing goes upwards. To descend it ‘vents’ some of that air. IT NEVER LEAVES THIS OCEAN. It cannot go to the very top and fly ‘into space’. It cannot get lower than the ocean bottom. It is shaped to slide through the water. Airships have the same physics. (The analogy isn’t perfect since water, although varying in pressure, does not compress like air at low altitudes. Also – airships do not need to maintain an internal pressure different to outside.)

I began to read a story a few years ago, online. I was curious to see what other writers were doing in the genre. I gave up in disgust after 1 chapter. They arrived at a location in their airship, pulled in the sails, then dispatched miniature airships, also with sails, to make the final descent to land. Completely laughable, and tragic that someone could get right through high school with, seemingly, zero understanding of some very simple concepts. The writing was serviceable, the details were excellent, the characters were interesting, but that one screaming absurdity killed it right there.

Edna Mode says “No capes!” Well I say, “No sails!”

Sails.2

2) SUSPENDED SHIPS.

Yes, I mean exactly that. You’ve seen it multiple times: the classic cigar-shaped dirigible balloon with a regular 16th~19th-century ocean-going ship hanging underneath. WHY, PEOPLE?! IT’S AN AIRSHIP! WHY BUILD SOMETHING SHAPED TO GO THROUGH WATER?

Do you have any idea how heavy sailing ships were? Lets take a classic ship, the Galleon. The smallest of these weighed about 500 tons. They were built of dense timbers. They had to withstand huge forces at sea, plus the weight of cannons, crew, supplies, cargo, and ballast. In comparison The Hindenburg weighed 215 tons fully laden, and had enough hydrogen to lift 232 tons. (This margin was essential for safe operation. (see ‘BALLAST & VENTING’).)  Thus: to lift one galleon, you would need ten Hindenbergs (approximately).

Which brings us to PROPORTIONS. It takes a huge bag of gas to lift the tiniest of things. You will usually see an astonishing pile of steampunky goodness hanging under a (relatively) tiny lifting body. The physics say “NO!”, Almost everyone gets the proportions wrong. Go do the research, people!

GirlGenius

3) GUN TURRETS, ARMOUR & SUPERSTRUCTURE.

See the above note re lift and load, but also: STABILITY, PEOPLE! An airship is exactly the same as a child’s helium balloon with a little toy tied underneath it – stable. Sellotape the toy on top and it will instantly turn turtle. The lifting body is always above the load! So pile the top with turrets, promenades, cabins and a command bridge as the illustrators do, and … flip! Everyone falls off and dies. Hah-hah! End of epic steampunk novel.

I will concede this point if (and only if) the vessel is held aloft by some sort of anti-gravity technology. But you will still need to justify to me why it is still shaped like a real-world airship!

On the point of carrying any artillery: They actually did! The Germans, attacking Britain during WW1, fitted their airships-of-war with anti-aircraft machine guns. But any kind of BIG stuff quickly runs up a whole bunch of flow-on effects. Weight. You have to build massive floors to hold them in place. A 4-inch deck gun in the real world weighed between 1 and 2 tons. The ammunition was heavy. Add in your gun crew and you’re close to matching the entire lifting capacity of the Hindenberg. For one gun! Recoil. Fire your 4″ gun and the recoil will shake your entire airship. Worse than that it will be a ‘point-load’ exactly equal to hitting it with the same shell you have just fired. The entire ship would flex violently, spilling everyone’s tea and collapsing the souffle, not to mention stressing every joint, wire and frame.

4) BALLAST AND VENTING. Does you airship carry ballast? Does it ever vent its lifting gas? In the real world they did. Often. Very often! It Was Very Complex.

Consider this: as you load more people aboard, plus their baggage and the mail, the ship will sink to the field. To counteract this you have to load off the same weight as valueless ballast (usually water, from tanks). All set? Let’s take off. Release more ballast. You rise into the dawn with engines roaring, but soon the sun gets strong and your entire ship heats up. Also, you’ve climbed into lower-pressure air. Your gas expands and expands, creating too much lift! If you don’t act, you climb higher, higher, the expanded gas exceeds the holding limit of the gas cell, and one ruptures. you plunge and everyone dies. Hah-hah!

But you did vent in a timely manner and now you’re cruising. But you’ve burned off a half-ton of diesel and the ship is climbing again! Vent. Lunch, then dinner. forty five bottles of champagne consumed and the chef throws the empties into the Atlantic. Vent again! Night; it’s getting cold, your gas is shrinking and you are sinking! Ballast off! Next day the whole cycle over again. Vent/Ballast/Vent. You run into a storm, the wind is surging you up and down. How to escape? Higher, or lower? And so on. (In the real world, storms were nearly as dangerous as human stupidity.) If your airship runs out of ballast, extra gas for venting, or both, you’re royally screwed! Either you’re falling, or you’re falling even faster.

Airships didn’t ever go very high. You should now be able to figure out why.

5) WARFARE. Sky Pirates: they’d all through the literature. But how would they really operate? Airships are incredibly easy to sink! A single fire-arrow shot from a bow could have taken down the Hindenburg or any of the mighty hydrogen ships. What else could? Chain-shot? Fireworks? Trained parrots? And if you are the attacking party, how far are you willing to risk your own ship? Who really has the advantage? If it is about getting height then who can sustain a game of ballast/vent ballast/vent? And how do you board in mid-air? Grappling hooks could rip your target’s gas cells and you’d sink it before you could plunder it. And this: Gunfire + Hydrogen = Oh Dear. And remember what I’ve already said about heavy artillery.

6) HYDROGEN & FIRE. Imagine this: somehow you get right inside one of the gas cells, and strike a match. KABOOM!?

No. Not at all. Your match flares for a few seconds as the phosphorous mixture burns out, then ‘phut’ – the pure hydrogen instantly extinguishes it. Hydrogen does not burn, or explode, unless it is accurately mixed with the right amount of air or pure oxygen (like in the space shuttle). When the Hindenburg burned, it was the paint that did most of the burning. a lot of the hydrogen whooshed into the sky in pure jets, unburnt.

Curiously, very few disasters were caused by leaks catching fire. It was always something else first. In fact the most common cause was human stupidly. (As exemplified in the story of the R101)

So if you’re a writer  – go for that. Human stupidity: never fails to fuck things up!

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8 thoughts on “Edna Mode says “No sails!”

  1. Very interesting article, and I learned a lot from it. Thanks for educating us all!
    I’m willing to accept a certain lack of accuracy in my fiction: I don’t mind it not being real, as long as it FEELS real. The most important things for that are internal self-consistence and coherency, I am quite capable of believing 6 impossible things before breakfast as long as they are maintained and the implications of those things are accepted also.

    1. Thanks.
      I proceeded with a touch of villainy in my heart, hoping to provoke this precise core issue of fiction. (It has elsewhere, on a G+ group I belong to.)

      As always, you bring down your silver hammer with precision:

      “The most important things are internal self-consistence and coherency, believing the impossible things as long as they are maintained and the implications accepted also.” [my edit]

  2. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel

    I agree and disagree on one thing: Sails.

    I agree they are annoying, but not because they are useless on the real world, but because they are a topic and a writer should always aspire to making some new stuff instead of using the same old tropes other have found succesful.

    I don’t care it sails are too fantastic. Who’s to say how much is too much? You cannot dislike them because they are unrealistic, because all of the steampunk and fantasy literature is unrealistic. How come a draon is fine but a flying galleon is not? That’s nonsense! Physics taught us dragons cannot even exist, so dragons flying the skies are out of the questions, but we love us a big bad angry dragon, no matter how science has to say about it. Why not a airship with sails and ropes and anchors?

    Mad science, bitch!

    1. I’ve offered my opinion. you’re offered yours. I think that makes us even.

      “Why not a airship with sails and ropes and anchors?” – Why not, indeed! Writers may make free with any and all of these tropes. I am not God, only Ged.

      It is you last sentence I cannot understand. (Never could; anything containing ‘bitch’.) Please explain.

      1. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel

        Explanation: “Science, bitch!” is a line used by a character on a well known TV series about cooking drugs (Breaking Bad). I was not calling you (or anybody else) a bitch, it was just a pun mixing that line and a steampunk trope (weird -or mad- science) and was not intended to offend.

      2. Ah!
        Thank you. I’m glad I didn’t immediately jump to the wrong conclusion, then.

        (And let it hereby be known that I’ve frequently seen the expression “[something, something …], bitch!” but have never understood the context. I don’t watch TV now.)

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