Say in the later 1700s/early 1800s handwavium is discovered. It's a metal that when heated causes more way more upward lift than hot air or hydrogen/helium produces in similar volumes. Air travel (and thus warfare) becomes possible long before traditional planes are invented. And without the need for lots of gas to lift a small craft, airships become significantly smaller targets.

How does this affect air combat? What engineering challenges would go into building a viable craft with such a material? How might protecting the material factor in?

To sum it up into a single question:

So what do airships look like in this alternate history of handwavium?

If someone wants to do the math I'd say a handwavium bar the size of a water bottle could lift 1 ton.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ handwavium is discovered. Its a metal that when heated causes more way more upward lift than hot air or hydrogen/helium produces in similar volumes. To produce lift as described it's density when heated would have to be less than that of Hydrogen at room temperature. That's just completely impossible for a metal or any solid or even a liquid. You're describing a gas and a gas that's magically (and that's all that it could be) less dense than Hydrogen. To achieve lift with an actual metal like this would require some kind of anti-gravity and we've no scientific basis for that. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2018 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG, you're missing the point. This site is about creating fictional worlds. Whether or not the OP's handwavium is scientifically possible is NOT part of the question - it would have been had he included the "science-based" tag, but not in this instance. Rather than chastize the OP for creating a perfectly legitimate question for this site, why don't you have fun and offer an answer? After all, so long as the question is within the rules and tagged appropriately, it's your job to meet his expectations, not his job to meet yours. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 14, 2018 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Pointing out the absurdity of an idea and that it defies common sense is not at all unreasonable for worldbuilding. If the OP uses "engineering" and "industrial-age" as tags this also implies a scientifically plausible basis. The OP's actual requirements are simply magic - they are not possible or plausible in any way remotely grounded in engineering. Given it's effectively magic the OP may as well tag as "magic" and stop worrying about practical engineering at all. That's the point. And I did, by the way, mention anti-gravity (handwavium) as an optional "explanation". $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2018 at 7:50
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @StephenG, you don't mean engineering, you mean materials science. Of course the handwavium is magic, we get questions like this frequently on this site. It's fiction after all. The OP did not ask about the plausibility, sensibility, or feasibility of handwavium. All he asked about was how that would affect the design of airships (the "engineering" part). Good grief, if we adopted your perspective, no steampunk question would ever be allowed on the site. If this actually doesn't make sense to you, let's take it into Meta and leave the OP be. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 14, 2018 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ What about changing this a bit? Your unobtanium is a magically reinforced durasteel that allows for a vacuum dirigible. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2018 at 13:46

5 Answers 5


From your description, this means that air warfare the way we understand it won't be invented at all. If a single bar of the material the size of a water bottle (let's be generous and say 1L) can lift a ton, then individual "flying packs" would have been possible: a backpack sized unit with a small heating element and reservoir of fuel would be sufficient to lift an individual with plenty of excess. The real issues initially would be how to control the lift (I am going to assume the amount of lift must be proportional to the temperature of the metal). So the unit has a control valve which can be accessed from the flyer's hand to raise and lower the temperature.

enter image description here

Quick, I need a match to start this backpack

Now as described, the metal simply provides lift so people will initially be used more or less as kites, otherwise they will be blown about by the wind, without very much control. A person acting as a kite can observe and signal to the troops below, providing intelligence, correcting artillery fire and possibly being used to throw grenades at enemies below.

Now this may seem rather counter-intuitive, but since this is obviously superior to balloons or ornithopters (the only known or considered means of flight prior to this point) yet entirely unlike either one, people will go for the easiest and most obvious applications at first.

Another way unobtanium will change things is in logistics. Heavily laden carts, artillery and limbers and other wheeled vehicles of the period were slow, hard riding and often churned up roads (or sank in the mud). Attaching an unobtanium lift unit to the cart or other wheeled vehicles allows them to float off the roads. With careful adjustments, they can float at low altitude (like a metre) so a horse team can still draw them without damaging the roadway. Care must be taken in windy conditions, but the fuel supply can be cut and cold water poured on the unobtanium to ground the cart, which then is pulled in the usual fashion until conditions are right for floating again.

So at least initially, unobtanium will not lead to air war or air transport.

As more experience is gained with the use of unobtanium, people may develop special suits to provide warmth and later pressurization to fly higher (and larger backpacks with more fuel). The idea of bombing the enemy may be extended so large carts or even specially designed rafts will be lofted, and crews can throw bombs, darts or even launch rocket projectiles. Guns will be out, since the recoil force will cause the platform to violently recoil. This may eventually be overcome by using the scaling properties of the unobtanium to build full fledged fortresses out of stone or concrete and metal and float them over important features or tow them into position as fire support platforms. Several hundred kilograms and a furnace in the middle of the structure provide lift.

enter image description here

Didn't expect that

In an unintentional irony, the use of these platforms may lead to winged flight, since gliders or ornithopter-like flying machines can be safely raised high enough to be launched. Given the lack of compact and sufficiently powerful engines, gliding flight may all that can be accomplished for a long time. Air superiority will then consist of protecting floating platforms, or having gliders swoop down on columns of transport vehicles floating just off the surface of the roadway, with the pilot madly throwing bombs or releasing darts as he swoops by.

enter image description here

Cayley 1804 glider

  • $\begingroup$ Just as an aside, you mention kites as a viable 'floating' platform, but not useful for propulsion. I'd have thought though that aerosails of some kind would have been the obvious contender for aerial propulsion. Sailors of the 1800s were already adept at using sails in a 2D framework for ocean propulsion, even if the wind wasn't favourable. I'd at least argue that sails would be explored for propulsion of these airships as well in the first instance. This would increase the size of the airship making it more of a combat target so what you say about recon would still stand. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Jan 15, 2018 at 1:56
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Perhaps I misunderstand what you're suggesting, but the problem with sails on an airship is that they have no ability to tack and can only be used to move downwind. Maneuver via sail is dependent upon the use of two media (water and air) with different physical properties. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Jan 15, 2018 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ You raise a good point here, but currently balloons change direction through upwards and downwards movement through different altitudes with different prevailing winds. I've put my own answer up with this that says that if you can go up and down, you can use sails to move in the direction you want provided you can get the right prevailing winds. I don't think I've been clear about that in my own answer so I'll edit accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Jan 15, 2018 at 4:19

They look a lot like small balloons

The issue is not lift.

The biggest issue is propulsion. Steam engines in the early 1800s were simply too weak, too heavy, and too unreliable to push a meaningful amount of cargo (or ordnance) through the sky. A century later, the diesel engines of WWI could barely push the equivalent of a planeload of bombs/cargo across the North Sea. The mighty and enormous Hindenburg carried a full transatlantic passenger load of...only 72.

The second big issue is metallurgy. We can ignore lightness due to the amazing handwavium. If that handwavium is generating 1 ton of lift per water bottle - then that's thousands of tons of force from each (much smaller) gasbag to be carried by the frame. But in 1800, you're stuck with iron or steel (of lousy/inconstant) quality, neither of which will last long against ten-ton or hundred-ton torsional and shear forces caused by the differential lift of the gasbags...and random wind loadings from every direction. Better steel became widely available in the late 1800s.

The third big issue is control. Airships are most vulnerable to the most sources of damage while near the ground - during landing, servicing, and takeoff. The ability to safely control the mass of the airship in this dangerous zone is one of the most important design criteria...right up there with lift.

It's certainly possible, since handwavium provides so much lift, to porcupine the ship with dozens of steam engines supported by thousands of tons of extra structural steel. However, all that mass will make the airship ponderous and difficult to control near the ground. Larger, more massive ships will be dangerous for ground crews to control, and will catastrophically crash more often.

Finally, a word about the generic problems of 1930's airships that are also appropriate: They were cumbersome and hard to safely land (ground crews of 50-100), even with powerful engines. They were shredded by fairly ordinary shears, squalls, and thunderstorms...which they carefully avoided using radioed forecasts based upon telegraphed standardized weather data from recording stations (all of which early 1800s lack). They navigated using stars, sextants, and landmarks (no GPS, no LORAN), and could easily drift 50 miles off course on a cloudy night or day, especially over ocean or wilderness.

  • $\begingroup$ the weight of the engine becomes insubstantial when you can generate that much lift. You can attach any size (and weight) of steam engine in the given scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jan 15, 2018 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ Admittedly, this is true, although the weakness part could be overcome at least in parts by simply adding more metal. Since weight is a complete non-issue, that might at least mitigate metallurgical shortcomings of the era. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jan 15, 2018 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki edited the answer to address your comments. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 15, 2018 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ I'd also dispute that 19th century metallurgy wasn't capable of dealing with the force generated. 18th century metallurgy gave us iron bridges weighing several hundred tons, after all. $\endgroup$
    – walrus
    Jan 15, 2018 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @walrus, agreed, and addressed in paragraph #4. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 15, 2018 at 16:36

The most probable answer I can come up with is that your handwavium would be used to counteract the weight of your airship, not provide excessive upwards thrust (you could always have some additional heat in reserve for emergencies, but generally you're just counteracting gravity).

Then, you apply the most common form of propulsion for large vehicles in that era; sails. This has already been explored on World Building and I won't rehearse what is said there, other than to say that your handwavium adds a new element to the puzzle. Because you don't have a massive balloon on your airship, sails become a real possibility because the lack of a balloon takes away a lot of the friction and wind resistance that would work against sails. It has (correctly) been pointed out to me that you can't tack in the sky because you can't use the water below you for traction, but like conventional balloons, you can use the handwavium to gently alter your altitude to prevailing winds, then use the sails to best effect in your chosen direction. Using the handwavium to avoid crashes also means that these airships in some respects are safer than other forms of air travel because balloons carry a big target that is critical to their flight whereas the loss of sails just means you have to cool your handwavium gently to land safely because you've lost propulsion.

Your sailors would have to be comfortable working at heights, but the old ships weren't called 'tall ships' for no reason so working in the sky isn't that much of a leap either.

The military aspect is a little different insofar as these ships are in the air so combat isn't as safe a place for them as ships of the line in old school naval combat, where the bulk of the ship floats anyway. But, the idea of a sailing airship is at least made plausible by your handwavium material.


At least early on, these airships will be constructed in a similar manner to ships for the simple reason that they would share many similarities and have to solve many of the same problems.

Removing the need for a gasbag means that what you've got is essentially a ship that floats in the air. Ships are already weatherproof and capable of resisting huge forces, and it's shipbuilders who will be called upon to build the new airships.

Furthermore, in the 1800s ships are the only large vehicles of any kind, and so the only thing around for airship builders to be influenced by. Form primarily follows function, but when function is taken care of it's heavily influenced by tradition.

They will differ from sea ships in many small ways, but even several years on from their invention they will still be recognisably based on them.

They will also drive the adoption of steam engines much more quickly than otherwise, as sailing will be much less effective without water to push against. By the start of the 19th century effective steam-driven ships were just starting to come into use and the invention of the airship will make steam engines much more attractive.

The (relative) necessity of using of steam power will also drive the development of large airships (as opposed to personal flying devices) because the size and weight of steam engines will require a more substantial aircraft to accommodate them.


I don't think you realize that your handwavium is basically a modern light-weight alloy

  • You need to move forward, and that means a propeller. Your motive option in that day was a steam engine.

  • Your handwavium wouldn't be used as bottles for the reasons mentioned by @user535733. Rather, it would be laced in with the steel (basically becoming a light-weight alloy). You'd mix it in with the struts, carriage, motor housing, and the motor itself, to basically turn the vehicle into a zero-weight "something."

  • Of course, the propeller moves it forward, but you need to turn. You can either add more propellers, or simply add wings, ailerons, and a rudder.

Which means the "something" you've invented a 1940s airplane in the early 1800s. There's no other sensible way to use the vehicle. Or, better said, someone would quickly invent the "airplane" to take advantage of the potential maneuverability of the vehicle. The first time someone did that, all other uses would become obsolete.

My model for this conclusion is the development of ironclad ships during the U.S. Civil War. Several inventors figured out how to use heavy, crappy steel and steam engines to create armored ships. To paraphrase a famous documentarian: on the evening the Monitor and Merrimack opened fire, every other navy on earth was obsolete.


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