Real Steampunk Airships

Last weekend at the Pi-Con convention, James L. Cambias gave a fascinating talk on historical airships.  This is a summary based on my notes and my memory. DISCLAIMER: I MAY HAVE GOTTEN STUFF WRONG OR MISSED IMPORTANT POINTS. I’M NOT AN AEROSPACE ENGINEER AND DON’T CLAIM TO UNDERSTAND THE PHYSICS OF FLIGHT.

Airships are a staple of steampunk and speculative fiction. Their aesthetic is immensely appealing but their mechanisms are rarely discussed. Cambias’s talk was a refreshing and fascinating look at real historical airships and touched on the engineering challenges of lighter than air flight. For example, burning fuel changes your weight.

The historical highlights began with Henric Giffard ( who created the world’s first airship in 1852 and ended with Zeppelin and his creations in the twentieth century. Along the way, Cambias discussed other significant figures. Santos-Dumont was particularly interesting. He not only created a number of airship’s between 1898 and 1905 but he actually used them to fly around Paris. (Santos-Dumont eventually turned his attention away from airships to airplanes.)  La France created by French army captains Reynard & Krebs was also mentioned. It was the world’s first fully controllable flying machine and used an electric motor which drove it at 12 mph.

Cambias discussed some 19th century American attempts at airships. Dr. Andrews’s Aereon built in 1863 was documented in newspapers at the time. However, modern scientists say its design would not have worked. The speculation is that it functioned as a balloon rather than an airship and that the Andrews got lucky with the wind giving the illusion that the craft was steerable. Marriott’s Avitor was an airship that sadly never came to be. A prototype was built in California in 1869 and flew on a tether.  But, alas, a full sized version was never made. In the 1890’s, there were reports of a mystery airship in American newspapers. The stories even included reports of cows being stolen. In all likelihood this was an elaborate hoax started by bored telegraphy operators and perpetuated by newspapers that freely stole each others articles and cared little for the truth.


The Giffard dirigible

The Giffard dirigible

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