By Andy Cooke
Having covered the military and civilian roles of airships, air operations, navigation and weather aspects of airship operation, and groundside operation, it's finally time to look at where our history could have diverged to encompass a larger role of airships in our timeline.
That is, after all, the point of this article series for alternate history.
Curiously, it's possible to look on airship history and come to two diametrically opposed conclusions: firstly, that airships were inevitably fated to become a dead end technology; and secondly, that airships really should have become a far bigger thing if it were not for a prolonged series of unfortunate events that implies OTL was written by someone who hated airships (especially when we take a look at the R101 accident).
Rather than concentrating on specific moments in history (although some will be highlighted), I've divided my attention into six general areas, each of which could result in a far greater role for airships. Each and every one of these six had to have turned out the way they did in our history in order to marginalise dirigible lighter-than-air travel in the way that it has done so (Today, there are fewer qualified dirigible pilots in the world than there are qualified astronauts).
1 - A Flying Start
2 - No World War 1
3 - The Imperial Airship Scheme and the R101
4 - Hydrogen, Helium, and Hindenburg
5 - The Eccentric Tycoon
6 - Reinvention and Restoration
1 - Flying Start: Earlier development and exploitation
The most obvious PoD of all is: What if airships were significantly more mature and widely used before the aeroplane was even invented? Many of the accidents and incidents that came along with airships were likely to occur with any new technology (aeroplane accidents were also common). One issue is that they never really got far out of the prototype stage as they continued to evolve, and the evolution of larger aeroplanes rendered them less necessary.
However, once a mode of transport is well embedded, it is harder to dislodge (not impossible, though, as pony-and-trap manufacturers would testify), as so much infrastructure is built and they are so widely used.
If, though, only a handful of airships are flying, abandoning the technology is trivial. If as many airships are flying as steamships are sailing, you're going to see them re-purposed or maintaining an economic niche (maintaining a niche is far easier than building into that niche). Airships are, after all, more economic in terms of fuel burned, quieter, and more flexible in terms of destination, as well as arguably more luxurious than other comparable forms of transport - a niche could be maintained if it were more embedded.
But could airships have been developed sooner?
Well, as with a murder, you need to find means, motive, and opportunity. The latter two can come about plausibly enough; it's the first that looks as though it could be trickier. If the technology simply doesn't exist and there's no obvious way for it to be invented, it doesn't matter how much you want it or whether you have the raw resources - you're not flying.
After having aerostats (balloons) available, you need people to come up with a plausible design for a dirigible, you need the right materials to be available for construction, and you need a propulsion system. Were these available sooner?
Design: Yes. In 1783, immediately after the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their balloon, Jean Baptiste Marie Charles Meusnier de la Place came up
the design to the right, barely fitting it on the paper after writing his full name. An elliptical balloon with an internal ballonet with a capacity of 1700 cubic metres of hydrogen, powered by 3 propellors driven by 80 men.
In 1784, a prototype was built, but abandoned the propellors for oars. Unsurprisingly, the propulsion system proved somewhat lacking, but the basic principles were demonstrated (as was the need for a gas release valve to prevent ruptures, following a rather hair-raising flight which ended with a deliberate tearing of the envelope).
Design: Possible from 1783
Propulsion: This was the problem with the earliest designs. The manpower needed for literally man-powered flights was impractical, especially for longer journeys. You therefore had four choices:
Internal combustion engines (plausible engines for this purpose gradually evolved over the second half of the nineteenth century; there is virtually no chance of availability of these prior to around 1851 without another PoD)
Electric engines (battery storage was an issue, but electric engine-driven airships were trialled in OTL as early as 1883)
Steam engines (which were successfully used in OTL from 1852, albeit with a significant power-to-weight penalty. You could, in theory, see some efficient early steam engines used from early in the nineteenth century with no other PoDs needed)
Rockets (eye-opening and dramatic, but of rather questionable practicability.)
Engines: Herein lies a key problem. Difficult, but not impossible between 1783-1850 as steam engines evolved; quite difficult from 1851 to about 1880 as you could use early internal combustion engines; easier after then.
Materials: The above implies that to obtain sufficient thrust to be meaningful, you either needed a fairly hefty steam engine, or you simply had to wait for the internal combustion engine (and even then, needed a fairly chunky one of those). The scaling effect of lift meant that to lift significant weights, you need very large volumes of gas, and this ran up against concerns over the scalability of the non-rigid design and precluded casual experimentation.
By 1874, people were coming up with rigid designs, allowing larger practical volumes (including a German chap called von Zeppelin), but funding and supporting such large-scale experimentation was difficult. However, it is plausible that someone could have come up with such a design decades earlier - but lightweight yet strong materials were an issue: aluminium (used in the first Zeppelins) was not commercially and economically available until the late 1880s. However, if you scale yet larger, thanks to things such as the square-cube law, some steels could well be used, and later, larger, airships did so. This would, though, probably necessitate a fairly big jump in size, which is rather a significant leap.
Materials: Mixed. Construction from the late 1880s is very plausible (especially as more practical and lightweight internal combustion engines are available); from earlier can be made plausible but more difficult.
On the "means" front, then, we have:
- Earliest feasible era is the early nineteenth century: possible, with early high-efficiency steam engines, steel internal structures, and a plausible reason for someone to take such a leap of faith in such an experimental large-scale project. Given some of the nuttier projects actually carried out in the nineteenth century, this can be handwaved - with the right motives.
- From the mid nineteenth century: plausible, with someone building on the Giffard airship design and scaling it up, using a rigid design to overcome the scaling issues (possibly with one or two tragedies en route) and would probably see more concentrated development on steam engines for efficiency and lightweight operation.
- From the mid 1880s onwards: very plausible, and possibly using very similar designs to the first Zeppelins. This would provide a fifteen-year headstart in evolution of the airship and its more widespread adoption before the aeroplane becomes established.
If the means were in place for an earlier development, we have to look at the options for motive and opportunity. These are now key elements in any putative Flying Start PoD. Let's look at those.
Well, as long as the design, materials, and engine are available, there are plenty of governments and tycoons who could provide the opportunity; any competent author should be able to come up with ideas. I would look at Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States as being the most likely providers of such opportunity, or even an eccentric millionaire or two (preferably two; attempts to outdo each other provide a marvellous source of competition). I would welcome seeing alternative opportunity providers suggested or used; it shouldn't be too difficult.
This is where it gets more down to argument. In OTL, it was arguably lack of motive in initial pioneering and then development that meant that practical larger airships weren't developed sooner - we had the means and potential for opportunity, as above.
So what would motivate the funding and development of airships any earlier?
Prestige, of course, is one. A Head of Government, or Head of state, or egocentric tycoon, wanting to show off his or her power and ability.
Perceived economic benefit is another. The ability to carry people or provisions longer distances and more quickly than any other means of transport could be very attractive.
Unfortunately, though, neither of these are likely to be strong enough to overcome skepticism and inertia, given the high levels of up-front commitment required. It's possible, of course, and I'd like to see stories which take these on. I think, though, we have to look at the most common source of inventiveness.
Visibility of the battlefield and the enemy is a massive advantage in warfare. An airship which could be flown wherever desired and at too great an altitude to be easily engaged would be a massive advantage in war. Providing that intelligence quickly and accurately - that would be very useful. Moving personnel and materiel to where they are needed, rising above any attempts to block you - also very useful.
When such a vehicle was constructed, the ability to drop explosives from it would very quickly become attractive, causing it to be scaled up still further.
So what war conditions would be needed? I actually think that a lost war would be more likely to drive such an attempt. After all, if you won/were winning, you obviously don't need any dangerous and experimental innovations. It should also be a war of prestige or even survival, and preferably one reasonably close to home for the Power involved in the potential development of airships. You also need either a quite driven senior military officer or several, or a far-seeing War Office or equivalent (this is where things can fall down, but a private citizen with connections, money, incentive (which can be political) and influence can cause ripples - for example, Lady Poppy Houston and the Supermarine S6).
There are quite a few nineteenth century wars that could give rise to this trigger. Three wars immediately leap to mind, going backwards in time (and thus moving from the easier-to-justify to the more-inventiveness-required side of the spectrum):
The 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War.
The Crimean War
The Napoleonic Wars
There should be others that could be used as a PoD trigger, and admittedly the Napoleonic Wars are very early and run into the bigger challenges listed above - but I'd love to see the PoDs that some here could come up with.
Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP