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In my universe the tech is steampunk and I want a better way of getting around in the air then lifting gas, helium or hydrogen. Bullets can easily puncture gas sacks and I really want something else that can get around in the air.

I've looked into Leonardo da Vinci's ornithopter, his flying machine, where you pedal to make the wings flap, but seeing as this doesn't have enough power I need something else.

In my universe electricity is something very, very new, and everything is run off of steam engines, (gas engines aren't invented yet,) but it's not the most efficient thing ever to bring coal and a steam engine up into the sky with you because it's big, bulky, and extremely heavy.

To sum this up How, other then with lifting gas, can something fly with steampunk tech?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure we can give you an answer that history didn't, without a health dollop of handwavium. What you need, as you've discovered, is a compact or lightweight source of power, one that can generate more lift than the mass of the engine + fuel. Internal combustion engines can do that. Steam can't, because you need an engine, fuel, and water, which is dense. Have you considered just throwing payloads from ground-based launders? Like super catapults? $\endgroup$ – Dan Bron Mar 22 '17 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ I take it Cavorite is off the table? $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 22 '17 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ It often is, Beast. $\endgroup$ – The Nate Mar 22 '17 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ Ways to cheat would be a lower gravity and thicker atmosphere. You could also adjust musculature depending on the specifics of your "universe". It's very difficult for humans to achieve man powered flight. The technology needs to be nearly perfect and very light weight. But a chimp, lighter and stronger than a person, might be able to sustain muscle powered flight, if you could persuade it to. smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/… $\endgroup$ – userLTK Mar 22 '17 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure how you feel about it, but Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo featured some terrestrial rocket conveyances that could do what amounted to VTOL. In the absence of electronics, I could imagine a hydraulic system that could throttle thrusters, and Heinlein used a mechanical computer for the timings on Galileo to get to the moon. Precision flight would be pretty handwavey, but theoretically possible. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Mar 23 '17 at 18:07

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Your best option still is, surprisingly, zeppelin, as long as you use helium as lifting gas. Choice of helium over hydrogen is obvious: it is non-flammable.

As for gas escaping bullet punctures, it is, contrary to common perception, not a significant issue: the lifting vessel is NOT pressurized, so the pressure inside and outside of it is practically the same. This was proven during Cold War when Americans were sending balloons with spy tech over Eastern Germany, (e.g. Project Moby Dick) and using prevailing winds to collect them. To big surprise of Soviet pilots, intercepting them proved very difficult: gas was escaping them so slowly, that they usually were able to complete their journey, and huge difference in speed made intercepting them using fast jets very difficult. Zeppelins also used separate chambers in lifting vessel to minimize risk further.

Bigger problem would be choice of engine: you would need to use internal combustion engine, as steam engine is just too heavy.

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  • $\begingroup$ You are telling me that 23/30/37mm explosive shells did not tear them to shreds? $\endgroup$ – Nick Dzink Aug 17 '17 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ To tear something apart, explosive she'll must explode, and, I guess, it's detonator is not exactly designed to trigger explosion when shell is going through thin fabric balloon is made of . Zeppelin of course would completely different, as it has rigid shell. $\endgroup$ – user61244 Aug 17 '17 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ "they usually were able to complete their journey". Not true. Only 15% made it out of the USSR. So many sturdily built cameras full of radiation-resistant film fell on Russia that they took and used them (the film) on Moon probes. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Nov 9 '18 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ If it's just fabric, an incendiary would be the obvious counter-tech development. Light it on fire. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Nov 10 '18 at 21:29
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Rockets!

enter image description here

from http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/R/Ruggieri.html Depicted is Claude Ruggieri, a fireworks maker who had flown animals in his rockets but was prevented from flying a child by the French police.

What better way to lift something into the air than rockets? There is noise, smoke, flame and the possibility for catastrophe. And they are real, and they work. I can imagine a vehicle with stages set off successively as the pilot perceives the craft is descending to earth. It would travel in a series of hops. Depending on the sophistication each hop might land on the ground whereupon the pilot disembarks, lights a fuse, then scrambles back aboard.

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    $\begingroup$ A rocket-powered glider could also work. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 23 '17 at 4:55
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    $\begingroup$ That is a good idea @Andon. It would make a good firework too. $\endgroup$ – Willk Mar 24 '17 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, steampunk can generate plenty of initial thrust via released pressure. It also just seems more appropriate for a steampunk story. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Nov 10 '18 at 21:31
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With the technology available, I would think gliders would be the only "flying machines" available. (Kites would need a lot of wind power to be able to lift a grown person).

But, pressurized steam; powering propellers of small "gliders" or "para gliders" could be a thing (but the air time would only be around a few minutes). The main concern would be bullets piercing the gas chambers, and "wings".

Launching these "gliders" via catapult (like aircraft carriers) into the air; and later powering it by steam seems realistic enough.

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    $\begingroup$ Steam canisters seem an explosion hazard, and good-quality pressure vessels are heavy. Zeppelins didn't carry a reserve supply of lifting gas for precisely this reason. Totally agree that air time would be very short. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 22 '17 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 instead of pressurized steam, we could use steam engines to create pumps; to pressurize air instead, much safer in terms of temperature. (but would lead to less power output from the gas) $\endgroup$ – Kevin fu Mar 22 '17 at 14:33
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My suggestion might be to take a leaf out of WWII where gliders were towed behind planes and then released to continue to their destination. Accuracy was very poor but their silence had obvious advantages. Lifting bi- or tri-plane gliders very high by balloon and then releasing them may be one option.

For long-distance flights (across the US for example) a series of balloon-lift relay stations in 100 mile sections could invoke memories of stage-coach journeys where the horses would be changed at regular intervals.

Transoceanic journeys might require sea-plane style gliders and floating platforms using wind and/or steam power to generate the newly invented electricity to extract hydrogen from sea water for the balloons (dangerous stuff, with clear literary potential for disaster :-) ).

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  • $\begingroup$ This idea improves if you go for ground effect gliders rather than the normal airfoil designs of our day. $\endgroup$ – The Nate May 22 '17 at 18:39
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Increase atmospheric density. Use any of the almost-possible flying machines, like the spiral pump or flappy forms. Sorted.

Tame large birds or construct feathers that make the flapping efficiently work. (Handwave the ridiculously complex material and mechanics problem; You did say steam punk, after all.)

That also works better in soupy atmosphere.

Otherwise, you have to displace sufficient amounts of mass. Usually air, (eg balloons, choppers, or planes) but it can be rocket exhaust, too, say.

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The main issue you have is energy. With light gases, you don't care about carrying some form of energy source because you're simply as light as your surroundings.

Since electricity is not an option, you're left with chemical energy, i.e. exothermal reactions, or kinetic/potential energy storage.

The former means combustion engines and the likes. This technology is probably too advanced or unfitting.

You're pretty much left with the latter: Kinetic energy storage. This can happen two ways, either you lift off with kinetic energy and store it in your speed (i.e. catapult launch variations), or you store it in a mechanical way, similar to a clockwerk or a rubber motor. It's a bit limited and possibly a bit of a stretch, but if you implement materials storing a lot of kinetic energy you can knock yourself out.

Another way would be to extract energy from something on-the-fly (sorry for the pun!), but that would require some aspect of your world to allow that. Magical energies are a classic but probably unfitting, thunderstorms could work as well in various ways, thermal lift would be something more mundane that is actually being used, but probably wouldn't be effective in combat scenarios.

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You could stay with Da Vinci and look at his helicopter concept:

enter image description here

Expand this to have more screws to increase the lifting capacity and a few propellers for lateral movement and you could achieve something steampunkish.

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What you can (relatively) easily do is a Human powered steam assisted airplane craft. We'll call it HPSAA for short.

Check out human powered crafts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human-powered_aircraft

The first successful human powered craft was assembled at 1923, when the materials were not reliant on electricity to produce.

What you can do with this is a human powered but steam assisted airplane, where a couple of compact steam engine help with the initial lift (that takes the most amount of power) and then keep the plane in the air at minimal velocity with help from one or two humans. When more velocity is required the humans will have to give it their all.

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Giant flying animals.

enter image description here

There's nothing stopping animals from growing big enough to carry people around, there just hasn't happened to be anything that big since humans have been on the scene.

In another universe, it may well be that huge pterosaurs or birds exist and can be domesticated. If they aren't common, a Jules Verne-type expedition to a subterranean land or exotic isolated valley would fit quite well with a steampunk aesthetic as a way of describing where they came from.

Ultimately, there's a reason we didn't have flying machines before we did. Without lightweight materials and compact power sources, flying machines are exceptionally difficult to build, especially when you consider the degree of aerospace knowledge required to design effective ones. By the time a society has developed the technology for flight, it's difficult to explain why they wouldn't just use that same technology to improve the rest of their society. Animals, as a zero-tech solution, offer a great way to circumvent that issue without requiring any hand waving or changes to a planet or it's atmosphere.

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What makes heavier-that-air flight hard?

To compensate gravity we need to push air down. The more air we push, the less energy we spend for the same pull. But as we push a lot of air we start losing more and more energy on friction. So it is hard to create vehicle with high lift-to-drag ratio - lets consider L/D 10-20.

Lift-to-drag ratio means that flying is equivalent to running up the hill - to go 10-20 meters(10-20 m/s = 36-72 km/h) forward you have to spend energy equivalent to raising yourself 1 meter, that's about 1000 W per 100 kg. 1000W is about 5-10x more than a human can do for long time.

The faster you go the more power you need and that requires good technology.

But if you want to go slow you get other problems - if you go slower than wind then you vehicle is useless. And if you move slow, then your wings meet less air, and you need bigger wings to push the same amount of air down. That's why human powered airplanes have such big wings. And it is hard to make big and light wings without good technologies.

human powered airplane

So - increase density of the air ten-fold and make climate calmer(zero axis tilt) and airplanes would become much easier to build and use.

As for the engine, IMHO pulsejet engines can be created with 19th century technology.

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There are several possible approaches, but each one has limitations, and all of them provide far less flight ability than using internal combustion Otto, Diesel or even Brayton engines (piston engines and jet engines, respectively)

If steam power is used as flight assist (i.e. for a glider like aircraft to lift off), then two techniques come to mind, either storing steam in a high pressure container and using like a JATO rocket to launch the aircraft (much like Bob Truax did with Evil Knievel's Snake River Canyon "motorcycle"), or have the high pressure steam used to run an engine just long enough for takeoff and climb to gliding flight. The second option leaves the boiler and firebox on the ground, but does not subject the aircraft to violent acceleration.

Direct production of steam without a boiler through chemical reactions is possible. The WWII German Me-163 rocket plane was powered by high pressure steam created by mixing highly concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide with a mixture of methanol and water. The fuel and reaction itself was insanely dangerous, but if you're looking for a rocket powered interceptor, this might be the way to go. A somewhat less dangerous reaction was using "Walter" technology, where Hydrogen Peroxide was used as an oxidizer for more conventional engines. Walter turbines were fitted to seem experimental Germa n U boars towards the end of the war, buring a mixture of Diesel fuel and concentrated H2O2. The combustion products and steam expanded in the turbine, giving the submarine rather spectacular performance, however the short range and danger of using concentrated H2O2 as the oxidizer was a negative factor for the Navy.

A final option would be to ditch the steam altogether and use the Stirling engine. This is also an external combustion engine, but uses a gas contained within rather than water as the working fluid. While early Stirling Engines were quite heavy, they were designed as stationary engines. There have been many lightweight designs that were developed by car companies in the 1960s and 70's, which could be adaptable for aircraft usage. Once again, the power to weight ration is lower than a comparable internal combustion engine, but a Stirling engine is quiet and economical, and in a large "steampunk" aircraft there should be room for multiple engines, the large radiators and external heaters needed.

enter image description here

Junkers G-38. Imagine filing the wing space with Stirling Engines

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As far as I understand, what you need is an external combustion engine which does not use water vapor, because (1) water is heavy and (2) the boiler is very heavy. You may want to take a look and take your pick from the list of external combustion engines which use air as the working fluid in the Wikipedia article on caloric engines. My suggestion is to use the Ericsson engine, which has already been used successfully (albeit fictionally) to power airplanes in William R. Forstchen's series The Lost Regiment.

Alternatively, if you don't need more than a few minutes of flight time, you may use a carbon dioxide engine, such as the engine used in the real-life Vuia I aircraft (1905). (Liquid carbon dioxide is boiled off to produce gaseous CO2 which is fed to a piston engine as a total-loss working fluid.)

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Not entirely sure how this might fit in your world, but how about this:

Supercapacitor powered single prop "gliders" or ultralights, and have them launched from a Zepplin.

Capacitance was known by the mid 1700's. check out the Leyden Jar

Advance the knowledge of capacitors a bit by your typical steampunk mad scientist with crazy hair.

I bring up Capacitors because they weigh less than batteries. They have their own problems though.

Now, Fly up in your gas bag. Line it with lightning rods. Lightning charges the capacitors. Of course, you have short flight times, but you can stand the zepplin off and then strike with squad after squad of plucky aeronauts. zipping around, breifly, firing pistols and dropping hand grenades.

This sounds like a lot of fun!

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In a case like this, steal from the best. Simply imagine there exists a negative gravitational substance akin to HG Wells' Cavorite. Your hypothetical antigravity substance doesn't need to launch vehicles into space, it only needs to provide sufficient lift to elevate steam-powered airships to enough altitude to sail the seven skies.

Wells in his novel, The First Men in the Moon, described a number of other applications, instead of lunar travel, which Cavorite could be used.

While Wells' sphere was enclosed completely in Cavorite to enable it to travel to the Moon and back. If an aircraft was partially covered with Cavorite this could provide enough to stay airborne. The amount of lift could be varied by opening and closing shutters coated with Cavorite.

The antigravity substance doesn't need to be exactly like Cavorite. If necessary it only needs to reduce the pull of gravity and make other forms of flight more practical. However, if the substance exerted enough force against gravity then it would be the ideal lifting mechanism for gigantic steampunk airships.

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Two options I can see:

One way to go is that you use hot air and limit the weapons technologies that people are willing and able to use at altitude so that instead of bullets you get "sealing harpoons" that stick into a vessel and expand to seal the hole so your sky pirates can capture vessels intact.

The other depends on how much magical hand waiving you're willing to do. If you use magic as a heat source for a steam engine it barely has to weight more than the cylinders, if you use magic to reinforce the block and pistons you can basically make them out of foil. In a not hugely magical setting a RPG group I was in once built a locomotive engine that weighed about 15-20 kilograms and was basically a perpetual motion machine, with a power source like that you can built a whole host of heavy-than-air flying machines. With magically reinforced materials you can also build a lot of the machines from the likes of da Vinci, that don't work, light enough that they're functional. If you want lighter-than-air forms a little magic goes a long way, magical heating again gives you a hot air balloon that doesn't need fuel while material reinforcement gives you a basically bulletproof canvas shell. You could also go the whole hog and use material reinforcement to create vacuum cells instead of having a gas bladder.

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petrol/natural gas/propane would be all good fuel sources for a Steampunk Airship. These were used for Naval ships with Boilers for years. If your going to use the Airbag method of lift, I'd think using a combination of Hot Air and Helium for the bag (each in separate chambers) this would allow for lift and decent. for steam generation remember that while Locomotives and Trains were hugely popular there were smaller and lighter steam generators also. Some small enough to power horseless carriages, or if you really want to think about it Alcohol Stills are mini steam boilers. for light building materials, composite wood materials were already in use in by the 1800's and while not hugely in use Aluminum was discovered in 1823 and Titanium was discovered in 1791. Both are light weightish metals (when compared to Steel)

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Springs seem like they might fit with the steampunk aesthetic. Build a propellor airplane around one or more mighty springs, like awesome steampunk clockworks. A steam engine is used to wind the springs up to an extraordinary quantity of potential energy on the ground, then the pilot detaches from the engine and lets the propellors spin.

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