Using only what is available in the 18h century, across any culture, what might airships look like in such a culture, assuming that an inventor used the resources he had to create one.

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like that works as a complete (and high-quality) answer, @AlexP! Why not post it as such? $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Apr 24 '17 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ what do you mean in term airship? Wiki assumes Aerostat as type of airship. Is it appropriate for you? $\endgroup$ – ADS Apr 24 '17 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ @ADS: You have it backwards. Airships are a kind of aerostat; not all aerostats are airships. Specifically, airship are dirigible aerostats. Like all aerostats, they derive their lift from buoyant gas; unlike balloons, they have engines and control surfaces which enable the crew to steer them and fly on a preset course. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ A Napoleonic style world and warfare with flying ships is such a vividly damn cool concept for a world that basically - who gives a frick how!? Get a few things invented a bit quicker by the guild of alchemists and metallurgical wotsists and just hand-wave it the hell in! $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Apr 24 '17 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ The hot-air balloon was invented in 1783 (according to wikipedia anyway). So it would look like a hot air balloon! $\endgroup$ – colmde Apr 24 '17 at 16:09

Sorry but no. No aluminium and no internal combustion engines means no airships.

  • You must have aluminium -- there is no substitute for its combination of strength and lightness; and to smelt aluminium you need copious amount of electric power, which was not available in the 18th century.

    The Hall–Héroult process for smelting aluminium was invented in 1886; before that aluminium was more expensive than gold and silver. As an anecdote, emperor Napoleon III of France "is reputed to have held a banquet where the most honored guests were given aluminium utensils, while the others made do with gold", or at least so says Wikipedia.

  • You must have internal combustion engines -- there is no substitute for their high specific power. Steam engines are too heavy; they need large high-pressure boilers, they must carry the water with them in addition to the engine and the fuel, and open flames don't mix well with hydrogen (or they mix rather too well, depeding on the point of view).

    The first primitive internal combustion engines were invented right at the end of the 18th century, with practical engines appearing towards the middle of the 19th. The Diesel engine (which was actually used on actual airships) was invented in 1892.

Some comments suggest that wood may be used to make the structure of airships. There are after all historical examples of airships with wooden structures. The first problem is that, as the linked Wikipedia article says, "the airships became structurally unstable when water entered the airship's imperfectly waterproofed envelope, [...] during wet weather operations". The second problem is that [above a certain size] "the superiority of aluminum (and later duralumin) in tension was more important than the superiority of wood in compression". It's the same as with airplanes: small airplanes can be made of wood, larger airplanes cannot; for airships this is even more important, because in order to be actually useful airships must be very large.

(I have converted the comment into an answer as advised by user Shokhet).

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    $\begingroup$ but first airplanes were made with wood. And what about aerostats? $\endgroup$ – ADS Apr 24 '17 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ @ADS: Aerostats in general are of course possible in the 18th century. My answer refers to airships. The Montgolfier brothers made the first ascension in a balloon in 1783. Aeroplanes are aerodynes, they derive their lift from the flow of air over airfoils; there are sailplanes made of wood and fabric even today. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ there is no substitute for its combination of strength and lightness Substitutes might be hard to obtain for the given time but so was aluminium. There are in fact several substitutes available: CFRP, fiberglas, aramid reinforced plastic, Ochroma wood, titanium, magnesium alloys and even steel all have a better or comparable specific strength. In fact aluminium already got replaced especially by CFRP in a wide varity of applications (e.g. aircraft, rocketry or sport cars) limited only by the current cost. $\endgroup$ – Christoph Apr 24 '17 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ The first Schütte-Lanz - Airships had wooden skeletons. I do agree that power sources would be a problem, though. $\endgroup$ – Burki Apr 24 '17 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP You should explain why you think the materials available did not suit the needs (a wooden one actually could have worked noone wants to fly during rain). You must have aluminium is as wrong as it is absolute. $\endgroup$ – Christoph Apr 24 '17 at 13:22

The first demonstration of a prototype balloon was in 1709 (Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão).

The world's first air force was founded 1793 - French Aerostatic Corps

Option 1: Take Father Francesco Lana de Terzi's vacuum design (1673), and permit money and time to be focused upon it.

Option 2: A variant of Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier's balloon ship with bird-like attachments (1785).

Option 3: A glider type of ship (Swedenborg, 1716), taking advantage of the ability to dynamically fly (which would have to be learned).

Option 4: A combination balloon glider - that uses its ability to change altitudes to gain switch direction and engage in dynamic flying with fixed wings.

All of these are possible in the 18th century - they just needed funding and focus to make them happen.

  • $\begingroup$ Spending sweat and treasure of vacuum airships would result in a prompt understanding of atmospheric pressure and the need to conterbalance it with a gas. And gliders are not airships, they are aeroplanes. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 21:21

Steam engines have problems of weight once you include the boiler - and 18th century materials technology REALLY wasn't up to the sort of pressures you need in a flash steam (or water tube) boiler.

However, there has been at least one pedal-powered airship!

Make that at least two ... the White Dwarf, built in 1984

enter image description here
piloted by Bryan Allen, famous for flying the Gossamer Albatross across the Channel in 1979. I believe White Dwarf still has the world record flight (58 miles) for pedal powered airships, and cruises at 6 or 7 knots.

and a French one, on which Stephane Rousson apparently failed to cross the Channel in 2008.

It's not totally beyond belief that one could be built using 18th century materials - very light woodwork or bamboo, silk, and hydrogen gas - though performance might be less than modern standards.

  • $\begingroup$ The structure of the White Dwarf was made of aluminium... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ ... and it allegedly had a 5G loading factor. As the volume of Al iwas relatively small, it's highly likely that a wooden structure wouldn't kill the project. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Apr 24 '17 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Will silk hold Hydrogen gas? $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Apr 25 '17 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ Silk isn't gas tight. I think you'll need goldbeaters skin too,as another answer said. I'd forgotten that term. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Apr 25 '17 at 8:00

How might airships be made using 18th century technology?

I think the answer is: using 1920-1930 aerodynamics and flight mechanics knowledges, late 18th century steam engines knowledges, wood and fabric.

Remember Clement Ader's 1890 steam engine produced 20hp for 51kg, which is 2.5kg/hp, while Wright brothers 1903 internal combustion engine produced 12hp for 75kg, which is 6.2kg/hp.

An 18th century Watt's double action piston steam engine, made out of steel, could have produced enough power. Even if it was 20hp for 150kg (7.5kg/hp)

Put such an engine on (let's say) a 1930 Piper Cub, or a Fiesler Storch, and it will fly. A Piper Cub is mostly made of wood and fabric, which was doable in the 18th century.

Main problem was the lack of knowledges in aerodynamics, but if guys like Otto Lilienthal, Wright brothers and Gerhard Fieseler were born in 1750, and met an other steam engine genius, then first human heavier than air flight could have been achieved in late 18th century.

watt double action steam piston engine

piper cub

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    $\begingroup$ But that 1890 steam engine required 1890s technology for high-grade steel and precision machining. It would have been utterly impossible to construct that a century earlier, because that quality of metal and machining did not exist, and could never have existed because it built on continuous advances over that century. The state of the art for lightweight steam engines by the end of the 18th century was the kind of engine that went into Puffing Billy. So even if you had the aeronautical knowledge, you still wouldn't have a viable engine. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 24 '17 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Not to put too fine a point on it, it's not just Lilienthal and Newcomen getting together. You also need Bessemer, Mushet and all the engineers who developed tool steel production, and spent decades investigating the properties of various alloys. And then you need the myriad nameless engineers who invented proper metalworking lathes, drill presses and so on over the 19th century, and you need the precision measurement techniques required (and enabled) to go along with it. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 24 '17 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham Nice input I agree, precision machining and tools to do so would have been essential, at this time. But if you think "takeoff and land" or 3 minutes operation time, some leather sealed piston could survive. $\endgroup$ – qq jkztd Apr 24 '17 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ The Piper Cub is an aeroplane. The question asks for airships. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget what you need to run the engine. The mass of high-end steam engines wasn't the only problem - you also need to account for the water. You'd need a closed-cycle steam engine for any duration flight, and those are a lot less mass-efficient than open-cycle engines. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 24 '17 at 14:06

They might be able to build zeppelins, as they do not require a lot of technology to make. They could be made with layers of textile, which has been made airtight with beeswax. Or as dot_Sp0T commented, use goldbeater's skin to reduce the need for beeswax (I think it will still be needed to seal up the seams).

The propulsion could be done with wooden propellors, powered by manpower.

Moving down could be done with having a hole at the top that can be opened or closed, and moving up could be done by a system of a fire heating air inside the balloon.

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    $\begingroup$ The skin of a Zeppelin (which is btw a very specific kind of airship built by the German Zeppelin Rederei giving it its name would use goldbeater's skin which makes the whole heavy beeswax procedure unnecessary.. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Apr 24 '17 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ Zeppelins used tons of technology that simply wasn't available in the 18th century, or would be prohibitively expensive. They do not require "a lot of technology" from our point of view, but that's a far cry from 18th century tech. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 24 '17 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ "The propulsion could be done with wooden propellors, powered by manpower" -- I despair when I hear this. Men make very very poor engines. A superbly trained young athlete weighs around 80 kg and can produce maybe 350-400 W sustained power, a miserable power-to-weight ratio of 5 W/kg tops. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 24 '17 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ A hydrogen airship has about twice the lifting capacity of a hot-air one. Given how heavy the available materials are, you probably couldn't get a hot-air one aloft. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 25 '17 at 0:33

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