What does every alternate version of history have, from steampunk to dystopias? Airships, of course!
In fact, I’ve just finished reading the first in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair, and airships feature in that world too. For some reason, the minute history changes, these great elephants of the air hear their calling and come running.
First, a little history. The Victorians were not, in fact, floating around in airships. They did, however, have hot air balloons which were the revelation of their age. Invented by the Montgolfier brothers, the hot air balloon quickly made its way into contemporary literature like Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Balloon-Hoax”.
‘Airship’ as a term wasn’t coined until much later, better known as ‘ships of the air’, ‘flying ships’ or even ‘air yachts’. And I believe it’s this close association with sea fairing boats which led to steampunk writers creating the idea of swashbuckling airship pirates. Bringing the ‘romance’ of piracy to the air. For example, in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust – not steampunk, but you get the point.
The first airship, known then as ‘non-ridged airships’ was created by Alberto Santos-Dumont around 1898. His first two designs were not successful – the first crashed. However, he finally managed with an airship which won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize for the first flight of the No.5 airship from the Parc Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than 30 minutes. He also flew another airship from Paris to St. Louis to fly at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
So why didn’t these incredible machines ever take off in the mainstream? Why are we condemned to fly in metal tubes instead of big, comfortable balloons?
Well… how do I put this… have you heard of the Hindenburg?
The Hindenburg was the last dirigible remembered in modern history and unfortunately, that’s because it blew up. On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and blew up. Of the 97 people on board, 36 people died, including a worker on the ground. This permanently made airships ‘dangerous’ in the mind of the public. On the other hand, I imagine they’re no more dangerous than planes or boats, and the Titanic didn’t put anyone off cruising.
The fact is they’re huge, heavy and slow. They’re affected by bad weather far more than planes. And while they would be far cheaper travel, these days, we pay for speed. Airships are also too expensive to run at a profit; the Hindenburg’s gas bags held 656,000 m^2 of hydrogen. If you were to fill it instead with helium, would cost over 1.2 million US dollars.
Romance of air-travel
And as I’ve said before, they’re romantic. It’s an easy way to inject something new and exciting that we can all picture but will never experience.
There’s plenty of reference material and it’s an immediate signal that it’s a different world than yours. So it’s fun to write characters who get to. Airship pirates and smugglers, or the sophisticated cruise line airships with handsome passengers and ladies in long drinking from long fluted glasses as clouds drift past.
We’re going to have to accept that we’re probably never going to get to ride in one of these things, so let’s turn back to fiction. Airships feature in The Martian Ambassador by Alan Baker as a means of faster travel in a Victorian age. Given an airship would still be faster than a passenger boat, it’s a nice cheat.
If you're after some more Steampunk, there's a list of my ever-growing post series: