There are lots of technologies out there that sound wonderful on paper, but never make it commercially. They work, but don’t get adopted widely. One of them is airships (or dirigibles, as they were once known.)
But one place where they still do ply is in steampunk literature, a science-fiction genre, set in the past, typically, in the Victorian era. “A Nomad of the Time Streams” is one such novel. A magnificent trilogy by Michael Moorcock, it’s about a British army officer named Oswald Bastable, who’s forever lost in time, getting shunted from one version of 20th century (Western) history to another.
“The Warlord of the Air,” the first volume of the series, is packed from stem to stern with stately, behemoth airships.
When he’s flung into the future from his own time, 1902—the year Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, New York, opened its doors—into 1973, he’s rescued by a silver, cigar-shaped balloon of the Royal Indian Air Service, the British colonial equivalent of an N.Y.P.D. rescue chopper.
He’s told that it’s an airship, a lighter-than-air flying machine. Based on how they maintain their cylindrical shape, these forms of transport can be of three kinds: a “non-rigid” airship (a.k.a. a blimp) relies on the pressure of the rising gas within it; the “semi-rigid” variety has a combination of ballonets and a keel; the “rigid” airship (a.k.a. a Zeppelin) is supported by a few gasbags and a rigid frame.
Their virtue lies in their simplicity. All they have is an “envelope”—the outer cloak, made of a rubber-coated fabric—and a “gondola”—the crew car beneath it—which serves as both a cockpit and a cabin.
While reading these books, I couldn’t help observing the plethora of nautical jargon applied to the descriptions of airships and their maneuverings.
Bastable flies from Kathmandu to London in the Loch Etive, which he praises as “one of the most famous aerial passenger liners.” At 1,000 feet, it’s longer than the Titanic and four times as long as the 250-feet Boeing 747-8, the world’s longest passenger plane.
She had “eight diesel engines, mounted four, a side, with reversible propellers. She held 12 million cubic-feet of helium, stored in 24 closet-size bags inside the hull.
Her frame was made of Duralloy—a steel alloy also encountered in the “Star Wars” universe—and she could carry a maximum of 400 passengers and 50 tons of cargo. She could cruise easily at 100 m.p.h., and her top speed was 150 m.p.h. in good weather.
He makes the journey from Kolkata to London in 72 hours, which is somewhere faster than a ship, but much slower than an aircraft. Like the (now-retired) QE2, it had, on board, for the entertainment of the passengers, ballrooms, phonographs, restaurants, and movie theaters.
Airships don’t have landing gear. In the past, upon arriving at their destination, they were moored to a mast—a pyramidal structure of steel girders—by a clutch of heavy cables. About a dozen men were needed for the operation.
Of the Loch Etive, Bastable recounts:
We were moored at Berkeley Airpark, taking on cargo and passengers. Because of a delay in finding mast-space, we were a bit behind schedule, and hurrying to make up the time as fast as we could.
The liner was secured by about 50 thick steel cables, keeping her perfectly steady at her mast.
All about me were moored ships of American Imperial Airways, the Versailles Line, Royal Austro-Prussian Aerial Navigation Company, Imperial Russian Airship Company, Air Japan, Royal Italian Air Lines, and many smaller lines.
Travelers climbed down a gangplank.
Aside: The tallest mooring mast ever built was the spire of the Empire State Building, but no airship docked at the skyscraper.
Bastable doesn’t disembark at Heathrow or Gatwick, but at the Croydon Airpark in Surrey. A vast aeronautical carnival playground, of sorts, with a circumference of nearly 12 miles, “crowded … with scores of airships, both large and small; commercial and military; old and new; it could hardly be placed in the middle of Piccadilly, could it, now?”
Vehicles that bring a squeal of delight are steam-powered vans and electrical broughams. Petrol is considered primitive and inefficient for these roadways.
The second volume, “The Land Leviathan,” has more variety, featuring vessels that can move over land, on water, underwater, even underground. Armor-plated warships called “ironclads” lock horns on gray billows, and exchange tumultuous gunfire and torpedoes.
But I found nothing more curious than the “metal mole,” a spherical machine that moves laterally, under the soil, by burrowing a trench.
Its pièce de résistance, however, is a terrifying weapon of mass destruction of epic proportions: the “Land Leviathan.” Deployed by the African military monarch Cicero Hood to conquer America, it’s regarded as an invention too terrible to have been put into production.
It was a ziggurat of steel. Tier upon tier, it rose, utterly dwarfing the assembled machines, which had already landed. From each tier there jutted guns.
On the top most turret were mounted four guns; on the second, six guns; on the third, 12; on the fourth, 18; on the fifth tier, a bank of 30 smaller guns; on the sixth, 50 similar guns; in the seventh (and the bottom most tier), there were upwards of 100 of the most modern steam-Gatling guns.
There were also slits in the armor plating, all the way up, for riflemen. Each turret was capable of swiveling independently of the others, just as each gun was capable of a wide range of movement in the turret.
The whole thing was mounted on massive wheels, the smallest of these wheels being, at least, four times the height of a man. The vast machine could move forwards, backwards, or sideways, whenever it wished.
This was truly a symbol of Armageddon.
In my travels through these pages, I’d come to look forward to a certain “mystery weapon” that the writer would unveil in each volume.
The last title, “The Steel Tsar,” reveals a “gigantic human figure, made of steel, and dressed in the regalia of a Cossack hetman.” The Robocop-like creation would embody the spirit of the human after which it was fashioned, and lead men into battle.