Sep 272014

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.

IcarusHumans 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

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.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard

Jean-Pierre Blanchard


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

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.







Giffard's Vehicle

Giffard’s Vehicle

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

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

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

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.

Apr 102014

Greetings and Salutations Folks. Red here again. Well, it’s a been a bit quiet here on the Radiant Vanguard site for a bit, but I come bearing good things (hopefully). Another Victorian Tech Column!

This week’s topic is…. metallurgy (‘n bells)! So, I’m writing and posting this on April 10th. Anyone know what happened on one particular April 10th? The (re-)forging of what might be the world’s most famous bell (or at least close to it), commonly known as Big Ben, and officially known as the Great Bell.

Originally the bell in question was cast in 1856, but well… it ended up cracking during testing. On April 10th 1858 the bell was recast, creating what is the current large bell found in the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster, and was first rung on July 11th 1859. After the recasting all was not well though, because just a short while in September the bell cracked yet again. Four years later, it was fixed by switching in a lighter hammer, and cutting out a piece around the crack to prevent the crack from spreading.

So, anyway, what’s this tangent about bells for? It’s a starting point for talking about the metallurgy of the time. Bells such as that were made of particular type of bronze called bell metal. Bronze is an alloy that was around for a very long time, with the earliest tin based forms of bronze being from around 4500BCE. Bronze an alloy of copper and tin (well, there’s also some alloys of copper and arsenic alloys that are called bronze, among other combinations…), which is generally considered useful because it’s hardness in comparison to it’s constituent elemental metals.

Now, what’s a metal that comes up in the context of steampunk-y stuff besides bronze? Well brass of course. Many people might think of bronze and brass as similar, on account of them looking superficially similar to someone not too familiar with them, but that’s pretty far from the truth. Brass is an alloy made from copper and zinc and is in fact much softer than bronze. Consequently, it is valued not for hardness, but instead for how it is easily tooled and has low friction. Now, where did/does brass end up used? Well, you guessed it, clockwork stuff is one example, along with plenty of other examples such as musical instruments, plumbing, and even jewelry. One useful property of brass is that it doesn’t tend to spark easily. Maybe consider using that in moving parts of your hydrogen-filled airships? Haha. While brass had more development later than bronze, most of the interesting developments in terms of brass making in Europe seem to have been in the 18th century, before the Victorian Era, so well… brass making had matured nicely leading up to the Victorian Era.

Now that we have those obligatory two covered, what else is relevant to metallurgy of the time period? Well, they had moved a long way past having bronze and brass (though they hadn’t stopped being useful of course). They of course had iron and steel at the time, and the industrial revolution was making good use of those, with some improvements in blast furnaces happening during the era.

So, What metals were more novel at the time? Well, as it turns out this time period was when metallic aluminum first started being produced and used. In 1825 it was first produced via a chemical reaction (anhydrous aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam), which precipitated a lump of the metal, however it’s not like that was a useful method for producing significant quantities. While some improvements to the process were made, it was a metal more rare and valuable than gold for much of the time period. A process called the the Hall-Héroult process was then invented in 1886, which used recently scaled up electricity production for the production of metallic aluminum. This was put into commercial scale production in 1888.

How about metals that weren’t around at all during the time? Titanium is probably a good example, as it was first produced in the pure metallic form in 1910, and wasn’t really commercialized for a few more decades.

I haven’t went as in-depth here as I would have wanted to, there’s a ton of other things one could talk about, but eh… can only make this little article so long in any case.

Mar 272014

Greetings and Salutations, Red here, and welcome to a little series discussing technology from the Victorian era. For this first one, I’ll be talking about the telegraph.

In some ways, the electrical telegraph could nearly be said to be pre-Victorian, in that some early experiments preceded Queen Victoria’s birth, let alone reign, in 1808. It didn’t use anything so fancy as morse code or buzzers, but instead consisted of a separate wire to carry a signal for letter, digit, or symbol. What was essentially a large battery was attached to wires at the transmitting side, which would cause electrolysis to occur in an acid bath at the other side, creating bubbles which indicated to the operator that the transmitting side had selected that letter.

That was one among various other early experiments, the rest of which I won’t go into here. Now, when commercial telegraphy started to become a thing, that’s where things get interesting. Typically when thinking of telegraphs people often think of the dits and dats of Morse Code, however that wasn’t the only encoding used in the early telegraph systems as they began to become prominent. In England, Sir William Fothergil Cooke and Charles Wheatstone (Engineers may would know him the fellow the “Wheatstone Bridge” was named after) created a system which could transmit the alphabet using six wires that controlled 5 needles which allowed the receiving end to easily decode what was being transmitted. It turned out that many wires was a bit too cumbersome and problematic for maintenance though, so a two-needle version was created, though that was a little more difficult to use.

Meanwhile, around the same time in the United States, Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail came up with a telegraph system that is the sort more familiar to most people these days. It was rather to simple to implement in that it only required two wires, and used a code of short and long pulses to send the messages. Eventually in 1851 this became the standard telegraphic device in Europe, however the UK kept using Cooke and Wheatstone’s needle-based system.

As time went on, various improvements to telegraphic systems were made, such as systems to record messages without an operating required at the receiving end, some even printing letters on paper, or ones to transmit images (the predecessors of what we now know as fax machines), all during the Victorian era. By the middle of the century, long telegraph lines had started to be laid between countries allowing long distance communication, and soon even ones crossing oceans were put in place.

After Victorian times, the telegraph continued to be used, and continued be improved with systems for progressively more automation, getting to the point of allowing someone to use a typewriter keyboard to send messages. One could say it eventually evolved into what we now know as the Internet.

Hopefully some people found this interesting. Stay tuned for future articles, they’ll (most likely) be going up at the Thursday/Friday boundary bi-weekly… at least if all goes to plan.