So, one of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks “steampunk” might be “airships”. So, how big of a deal were airships actually in Victorian times?
Well, to discuss that, let’s build up some context first. Hopefully this isn’t too boring/repetitive, but well… I feel the need to set the stage.
Humans have been fascinated with flight since pretty much the beginning of recorded history. Consider the tales such as that of Icarus from Greek mythology. One might say that people have always been envious of the freedom that birds have and they lack.
Over human history, many tried to achieve flight. Many jumped from towers, while others designed contraptions inspired by birds. I haven’t found particularly solid sources on this right now, but it’s said that in ancient China, kites capable of carrying people were used.
Turns out things really blew up (so to speak) close to 55 years before Queen Victoria took the throne of the United Kingdom. That is to say… the first case of lighter-than-air methods carrying humans aloft however, was that of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in France, which in October 1783 flew with people aboard.
Montgolfier Brothers’ 1783 balloon
The Montgolfier brothers certainly weren’t the only ones interested however. The air was an exciting new frontier for humankind after all! Apparently in August 1784, just the next year, a fellow by the name of James Tytler was the first in Britain to ascend, beating his rival Vincenzo Lunardi by a mere month.
The next year, in 1785, a fellow by the name of Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a balloon. (Sure seems people like using the crossing of the English Channel as a milestone, eh?)
The Glamorous Vincenzo Lunardi
Vincenzo Lunardi, though not the first in Britain, certainly gave good reason to remember his name, as he went a long way to glamorizing ballooning.
All this excitement ended up being called “Balloonomania”. All sorts of goods and paraphernalia started appearing with themes and inspiration from ballooning. Such excitement it was… but it is worth pointing out that not everyone was enthralled of course, with plenty who doubted the practical utility of it all.
While all that continued on for a while, the major events above all were well before Victorian times proper though. So… what were things like in Victorian times?
For one thing, people started trying to make lighter-than-air vehicles which were powered and they could steer, airships so to speak. One which is reputed to be the first successful one created by Henri Giffard in 1852, which was powered by a steam engine and made a controlled flight 27km from it’s launch in Paris.
What’s that I hear? “What about big airships like in many steampunk stories?” Well, hold your horses! You’re jumping too far ahead…. patience…Ones resembling that came about relatively late.
William Samuel Henson’s Aerial Steam Carriage
Let’s see… What about heavier-than-air vehicles? Well, there’s Sir George Cayley, who was considered by some to be the “father of the aeroplane”. Sure, he didn’t end up creating a successful vehicle that could achieve powered sustained flight like the Wright Brothers later did, but Sir Cayley’s work nonetheless important, for it was he who as early as 1799 started making a rigorous study of the physics of flight. It was this work which led to William Samuel Henson coming up with an “aerial steam carriage”, which while it did not fly, was an interesting milestone.
Le Bris’ Albatros
In the years following, there were many experiments going on, some even achieving brief hops, but none were particularly practical. Incidentally though, it was in the process of this where a better understanding of aerodynamics started to lead to gliders that were more practical.
Now for a little trivia side show to give some more historical context! Who’s heard of “Around the World in Eighty Days”? Surely all of you have, as it’s had renditions in many different mediums in modern times, ranging from musicals, film, television, etc. Well, it’s a book published in 1873 by French writer Jules Verne. The book’s premise (summarized greatly) is that a fellow makes a wager that he can travel the world in 80 days, mostly due to railways. Do any of you associate “Around the World in Eighty Days” with balloons? If so… I’m sorry, balloon was never a mode of transportation that occurs in the story. The addition of that is to be blamed on the 1956 film adaptation (Film adaptations of books, ruining them since… forever?) Don’t give up all hope though… because Jules Verne did write a story about manned balloon flight as it turns out. “Five Weeks in a Balloon” was the title, written in 1863.
First Zeppelin flight
So… back to the big airships… well, too bad for Victorian Era, they came about right at the very trailing end. It was in 1900 that over in Germany, Count von Zeppelin’s first airship flew. One might even say the rise of the large airship punctuated the end of the Victorian Era.
… What’s that? You still want more? Well, I’ll give just one more date for some perspective. Everyone knows of the famous Wright Brothers, right? Right? Wright? (I’m not as funny as I sometimes feel like I am…) Well, the first successful powered flight by the Wright Brothers, was in December 1903, just a couple years after the passing of Queen Victoria.
And with that… Red, signing off for now.