Steampunk Airplanes from the 19th Century

A few days ago I put up a post about 19th century attempts to produce steam-driven carriages and cars, which were very much like the kind of vehicles imagined by 20th century Cyberpunk writers. Cyberpunk is the type of science fiction, which takes as its starting point the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had had spacecraft, flying machines, cars and so on.

As well as inventing steam cars, carriages and buses, the century also saw a series of inventors put their minds towards flight. Balloons had been known about and used since they were invented in the 18th century. While some scientists and engineers, like Cugnot in France, attempted to create dirigible balloons – the ancestors of the Zeppelins and other airships of the 20th century, others tried to create heavier-than-air craft using wings, partly based on observing the way birds fly. These were the precursors and ancestors of the Wright brothers’ plane flown at Kittyhawk.

Such flying machines appear in the Science Fiction of the period. There are flying ships in Bulwer-Lytton’s early SF novel, The Coming Race. These frequently had fantastic designs, that would have been completely impossible to fly, such as the flying machine invented by one Mr Broughton in the short story, The Fate of the Firefly, by the Rev. J.M. Bacon. This is described as like

the skeleton of some antediluvian monster bird or flying fish. There were huge lateral wings, in texture like a bat’s, there was a pointed beak and a neck whose vertebrae were jointed pully blocks, but the body was too complex for comprehension, though it clearly contained an engine of some sort, with a tank which also did duty as a table. The story was accompanied by the following illustration of the ‘plane’.

Steampunk Aircraft 6

See Hilary and Dik Evans, Beyond the Gaslight: Science in Popular Fiction 1895-1905 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd 1976) 81-5 (pp. 81, 82).

Other, more serious attempts to create a flying machine, can be seen in the book Images of Aviation: A Century of Flight, by John W.R. Taylor (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 1999). This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to produce the airplane, as well as various early balloons. It also has a photo of a model of the glider invented by George Cayley in 1849, which successfully lifted a ten year old boy off the ground. This was succeeded in 1853 by a vehicle, which successfully carried one of Cayley’s servants. The vehicle crash landed, however, and although the man mercifully survived, he and Cayley were so shocked by the crash that Cayley turned his back on flight. He is, however, now recognised as one of the founders of the airplane and the science of aeronautics.

Steampunk Aircraft 1

Another British inventor, William Henson, produced a design in 1842 for an ‘aerial steam carriage’. Henson built the machine, but it failed to fly when it was tested in 1847. The steam carriage was launched from a ramp, but the small steam engine driving its two propellers lacked the power to keep it in the air. It is, nevertheless, a very good piece of engineering, as all the components are exactly where they should be in a working aircraft.

Steampunk Aircraft 2

After experimenting with clockwork models in the 1850s, the French naval officer, Felix du Temple, successfully launched a monoplane carrying a sailor in 1874. The device was powered by a steam engine, and took off from a ramp. It wasn’t very successful, staying aloft only for a few moments. Still, this was another important milestone on the way to powered flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 3

Twenty years later, the pioneering Russian aviator, Golubov, managed a flight of between 65 to 100 feet in monoplane – a plane with only one set of wings – designed by Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaisky. like du Temple’s plane, this was also launched from a ramp.

Steampunk Aircraft 4

Another French inventor, Clement Ader, made what French historians still claim was the first recognised flight in a powered airplane in the Eole. Powered by a 20 hp steam engine, this flew eight inches off the ground for 165 feet at Armainvilliers in October 1890. The flight was uncontrolled, however, and the design of the machine itself was basically impractical with its bizarre bat wings.

Sir Hiram Maxim also tried his hand at flight, creating an immense steam-powered biplane, which he attempted to fly at Baldwyn’s Park in Kent in 1894. This briefly cleared its guide rails before it hit a guard rail and crashed, after which Maxim called an end to his experiments in flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 5

The end of the 19th century saw further developments in flight from Otto Lilienthal in Germany, who constructed a series of man-carrying gliders, as well as other aviators in the very first years of the 20th century, such as Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their machines are much more like those of the Wright brothers, which came after them.

I find the Victorian machines interesting, however, as they show not only the immense imagination and invention of the engineers and scientists of the period, but they are so much like some of the machines of Cyberpunk SF that you really do wonder what they world would have been like, if they had been more successful and flight had been successfully invented fifty years or so before the Wright brothers.

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