Practical Airship Design Part 1

Monday, November 5, 2012

Making the Fantastical Practical

Well, "Practical" may not be the right word.smile

I am a member of a Steampunk group that models itself as an Airship Crew.  Nothing really new about that, there are lots of Airship crews out there. What I particularly like about this group though, is that there are some members who are of a strong engineering bent. As part of the online Role Play we do, between going out to pubs in our uniform finery, there have been several intense discussions about the nature of our airship. Things like how big is it, how fast can it fly, what kind of lift system does it use, what is its power source, crew and cargo capacity etc.  To be honest, most of our shipmates are not really worried about the technical side, as long as it is consistent enough to make whatever role playing we do entertaining.  However, there is a lot of interesting and technically cool issues to grapple with, every bit as intriguing to me as what form the uniform will take and where we will be flying off to.

Now since the idea is to have an airship capable of doing an around the world voyage, like the Graf Zeppelin did, and to carry a reasonable crew and cargo, but at the same time be fantastical enough to be interesting, the design walks a fine line between technically feasible and outright fantasy.

I'm of a fairly technical bent myself and as such I am more interested in such a ship having as much of a real technical basis as possible.  To me, a Steampunk device is much more interesting if the fantastical (i.e. imaginary) elements are just sufficient to make it work. For example, in Kenneth Oppel's books they have a lift gas that has many times the lifting capacity of hydrogen. Nearly everything else is still normal. With only one big change to "Physics As We Know It"(tm), the reader doesn't have to decide if hanging onto a rope, while dangling off the tail fins of an airship, is risky, it certainly is since gravity still applies and crewmen don't sprout wings simply when needed.

For me therefore the design of our airship needs to keep the fantastical elements to a minimum, while still tipping our collective hats to the "What Ifs" of Steampunk. The kinds of things I talked about in last weekend's speech.

The role playing we are doing, to pass the time more than anything, consists of text messages back and forth, in character, concerning the various doings associated with being in an airship crew. It isn't really a game per se, it is more an unfolding storyline. One of the interesting things about this kind of evolving narrative is that statements made previously stick around, and become part of the story. It is considered a big Faux Pas to arbitrarily change the story without discussing it first.

And that, dear reader, is my opportunity to do some "Practical Airship Design" smile

One of the earliest design constraints made, almost by accident, was that we would have an energy source of unimaginable power, like the one in Disney's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, the "Power of the Universe" as Captain Nemo described it.  I have chosen to keep that as the main fantastical element and try to design a practical airship around it. That doesn't mean I will only include real Victorian technology. I am a big fan of "What Ifs" so Tesla's creations will figure prominently as will Babbage's computing capabilities.

Any design process is always a compromise, and since we have to include our fellow crewmembers as passengers on whatever our airship design ends up looking like, they have to ultimately agree to live within any technical constraints we give her.

In future posts I will be making my case for particular design elements. Consider them proposals really and they may not be adopted by the rest of the crew, but I will try to let you all know how it is going.

Thanks for reading.

You can follow the full design thread by clicking on the tag "Flight Engineer".
Click here for Part 2

Keep you sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.
KJ

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