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I have a world with late 19th-century steampunk technology. The major nations are at war, and one of them has depleted a lot of its manpower.

I thought that they could try to design automated artillery which uses pistons, clockwork and steam-power to reload itself and shoot. Only one or two artillerymen would be needed to oversee each battery. The artillery itself is a steam cannon (since gunpowder hasn't been discovered yet).

I'd like to know if making such an automaton is possible. (Practicality is a whole other thing, I am aware it would probably be too impractical and unreliable to be used en masse.)

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    $\begingroup$ If there's no gunpowder, then there's no explosive artillery shells so there's no point in artillery. If there is artillery shells using some other explosive, then the necessity to set up steam engines and get them to operating temperature would A) require a ton of personnel to transport, set up, and operate, not just "one or two artillerymen" and B) be immobile while firing, making it fatally vulnerable to counterbattery fire by enemy non-automated artillery. $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2020 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ Have you read Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer series? He's got very plausible steam-powered machine guns. Pumpkin-chunking/chucking is a thing, using pressure cannons. Also look at the Nazi V3 weapon which used sequential pressurization to fire larger projectiles. Good stuff. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Nov 26, 2020 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Worth remembering that on a battlefield pressurised steam is not your friend. Nothing says ‘collateral damage’ quite like an all-encompassing cloud of >100 degree water vapour. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 26, 2020 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs yeah... but it's steampunk. The inconvenient realities always come second to a good fiction genre. Now for a story: a friend of mine served in the Air Force. He and his fellows on Guam were loading a plane with an under-wing nuclear bomb. It wasn't activated (of course), but something went amiss and they dropped it on the tarmac. "We all looked at each other for a few seconds. It was a very sphincter-clenching moment." In other words, mistakes happen on battlefields no matter what technology is in play. 😁 $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 27, 2020 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan, actually there was artillery long before explosive shells were invented. All canons were immobile while firing until after WWI, and you can have a canon on a steam automotive vehicule (see steam cars). Lastly, operating a steam engine & boiler takes only 2 people on a classic steam locomotive : driver & fireman, (and the driver does other things like monitoring its speed, the track signals, etc...) $\endgroup$
    – Axel B
    Aug 1, 2023 at 10:14

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I think it is for surely feasible.

Steam trains are the prototype of steampunk technology. And they have an automatic way of refilling the cylinder with steam for moving the wheels.

You just need to modify the design so that instead of moving the crank it launches the projectile and then reloads the chamber.

The servants would then only assist with keeping the burner active and supply new projectiles to the magazine.

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  • Loading
    Yes. Since you have steam cannon (historically marginally practical steam or hydraulic cannon came later than practical gunpowder cannon), all you have to load are the shells and the pressure spikes should be lower.
  • Aiming
    That is more tricky, unless there are mechanical linkages between all the guns in the battery and an aiming post. But then one could envision one of the gunners running from gun to gun and making sure of the aim. A lower recoil means less need to correct after each shot.
  • Firing
    Relatively simple, compared to the rest.
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  • $\begingroup$ Many artillery used to be 'fire in their general direction'. The big railway guns of the Germans could fire kilometers (not with steam of course), but were hardly accurate. They are for fear and large targets like cities. Aiming might not be the most important. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Nov 26, 2020 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane, I think you're underestimating the accuracy. For WWI, consider the big German howitzers against Belgian forts, or how the Brits quickly added meteorological corrections to their field artillery. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Nov 27, 2020 at 5:33
  • $\begingroup$ Surely feasible. The only disadvantage would be that the automated loading mechanism would be big, heavy and clunky, with lots of gears & steam & stuff. Which in a Steampunk setting is not exactly a negative! $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Nov 27, 2020 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ For aiming, have a look at early battleship fire control systems based on analog computers. They were made to compute in real time the positions of enemy ships, the angles of firing and the timings of firing (based on the ship's rolling). At first the data were transmitted by voice to the artillery men through acoustic pipes, but they later used analog electrical control to electrical engines moving the canons. One could inspire from this and use steam equivalent $\endgroup$
    – Axel B
    Aug 1, 2023 at 10:25
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Clockwork

It seems very reasonable. With clockwork we can make very precise timings, even with semi-irregular intervals. Like putting in a shell, increasing pressure via piston pumps, releasing it to fire and resetting the gun to the previous state, ready to be reloaded. Even if the heat might be different and the pistons might slow down, the clockwork would slow down accordingly and the timings would still work. Only watch out that the pressure is high enough to fire the shell.

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What a splendid notion!

I'm thinking hydraulics with steam providing motive power. You could mechanically adjust gun alignment for beds hydraulically coupled to a sight and trigger command station. Ideally there would be a way to remotely couple "trim controls" from the command station to the adjustment system for a given gun.

Some smaller guns could fire tracer rounds for walking your range to the target, with a very steampunk GBL to (dis)engage the loading/firing systems for the big guns.

An interest of mine is bootstrapping, which is the planned reconstruction of high technology industrial pyramid. You can't just build a silicon wafer factory, you have to iterate through levels of tech in a cycle of building both the tools to build the tools and the necessary industrial capacity to grind up a mountain for a kilogram of iridium.

Part of the problem is warlords with remnant tech. Even if you grab lots of stuff in the fall, sooner or later you run out of ammo and parts for your fancy toys and you need the sort of thing described in this question to hold others at bay while you Take Over The World™ in the process of securing the surprisingly large resource base you need in order to reclaim the stars.

Low tech solutions like this have the wonderful quality that you can surprise deploy them. Use the ranging guns to feign firepower till they're in ideal range, then EMP your enemy back to the steam age with a very special shell. The rest of the battle should be rather one sided (or maybe you want their ships).

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If you have steam power, you can make pneumatic systems including pneumatic switches, and entire steam/air-based automatic systems. Making an artillery piece that has steam cylinders to cycle the action is no problem.

You don't have gunpowder . . . but you didn't say that you don't have dynamite (although frankly, it seems like a short road from nitroglycerin to nitrocellulose, but I'm not a chemist). Dynamite guns were a real thing--they used pneumatics to launch dynamite-based shells that wouldn't survive the more violent launch of a gunpowder charge.

I find it relatively easy to imagine a repeating cannon, using steam to launch the projectile and steam to run pistons that operate the gun's action.

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