More Technology of “The Sauder Diaries” – A Steampunk Dragon; What’s Not To Like?

Introduction

This is the third part of a three-part set answering this Question From the Audience. So, without further ado, allow me to continue on discussing the various technologies that Hans encounters and uses, and evaluate “The Reasonable Plausibility Level” (RPL) of each.

Science and Technology of “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name”

The “Dragon”

One of the most memorable scenes in “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name” is the dragon attack in the chapter titled “A Quiet Little Town”:

“It came into view at the lighted edge of town, lumbering out of the night. The lights of the town glinted off its armoured hide as it advanced. It was easily two heights of a man to its shoulder, if not three, and double that to the top of its steel head. It was probably the length of a Pullman railway car including its tail, advancing on three pairs of legs.
“Six bombard-styled cannon barrels were set along its spine, each one apparently firing at a different target. High pressure steam instead of powder propelled their payloads. Heavy cannonballs fell down upon the highest buildings, smashing them and throwing shrapnel in all directions. Metal whips, some twenty feet long, were mounted at the top of each leg, snapping back and forth in lethal arcs and shimmering in the town lights.”

… the book further notes that …

“Dragons were the hammer that had broken the anvil of the Crimean war for both sides. They were 90,000-pound armoured cars or ground walkers. They carried the combined firepower of an infantry company, an artillery battery and a mad-scientist’s laboratory. Each one was directed by an autonomous analog differential analyzer with the intelligence and cunning of a Saint Bernard. This allowed them to problem-solve and act on their own to complete their mission.”

A truly fearsome weapon for infantry of the Victorian Era to contend with. Semi-Autonomous warbots are a staple of science fiction, both in the hands of the villains or the heroes  So, where does the “Dragon” of The Sauder Diaries fall on the RPL scale?

Smart Like St.Bernard, Strong Like Ironclad

The “trick” to the Dragon is it’s brains. Essentially, a self-learning artificial intelligence runs the Dragon, allowing it to problem solve, make decisions and take planned actions. This is pure fiction. In today’s world, we’re using room-sized clusters of machines that each have more computing power than the entire Mercury and Apollo space missions by NASA combined to get close to this level. They in turn require the power output of a car-sized generator. In short, this one is right out, even with today’s technology.

Why the size of a Pullman Railway Car?

There were two things that factored into my decision to make the Dragon this big. The first was “tradition” … Big Dragon == Scary Monster. Our pop-culture mythology tells us that small dragons are friendly, big dragons are not. And this is a -very- unfriendly dragon.

The second item was the idea that this was a mechanized monster that packed a powerful steam boiler, fuel storage, weapons payload, batteries, a powerful dog-brain computer, and six to eight locomotors into a ruthlessly managed vehicle. Essentially, it’s got the equivalent of a steam engine, coal car, and rolling stock box crammed into -1- train car of space. That was about as small as I could convince myself. Military-grade systems have always been generationally a size smaller and more powerful than their civilian equivalents. However, I consider this stretching the RPL a bit.

90,000 pounds? huh?

37 tons, or 64,000 pounds, is the weight of a railway passenger car. It’s also slightly lower than the load weight of a typical North American 18-wheel tractor-trailer/ semi-trailer transport truck. By comparison, the M1 Abrams tank rings in at 135,200 pounds. So, it’s lighter than a 20th century main battle tank, and only a third heavier than a rail car of the era.

Honestly, we’re stretching the RPL again; it’s probably light by almost 30,000 pounds. However, I was trying to come up with numbers that are easy to work with emotionally. “It’s the size of a railway car and nearly the weight of a ‘Mac’ Truck”. Most people get that, when I explain it in modern terms.

Why Six Legs/ Six Wheels? – Ground Pressure

For a vehicle to be able to move over ground, it can’t sink in. If it sinks, it becomes bogged down in the earth and is out of action. The reason a vehicle will “sink” into the ground is that the weight is too great for the ground to bear on the area the vehicle is resting on, or it’s “foot print”. In other words, the bigger the wheels, the less likely the vehicle is to sink into the ground.

Tracked vehicles, like battle tanks and bulldozers, have massive foot prints, compared to vehicles with wheels. This is why they can go places that even four-wheel drive trucks can’t. Some specialty vehicles for working in forestry or snow areas have six wheels instead of four, to essentially add a third more area to their foot print, reducing the load on the ground and thus the chance of sinking in.

This is measured in Imperial units of “Pounds per Square Inch”. Some example numbers are:

  • Human on Snowshoes: 0.5 psi
  • Average Human male: 8 psi
  • M1 Abrams tank: 15 psi
  • 1993 Toyota 4Runner / Hilux Surf: 25 psi
  • Adult horse, 1250 lb: 25 psi
  • Passenger car: 30 psi

… so for the Dragon to be believable, it has to be able to spread it’s weight out over an area that will get it’s PSI around the area of an adult horse, at worst. 90,000lbs / 6 = 15,000lbs load per leg or tire. At 25 psi, that works out to 600 square inches per, or about four square feet – say the size of a modest table. So, anywhere a horse can go without getting stuck, so can one of these monsters. Seven square feet gets the load below the limit of the M1 Abrams; that’s only a handspan bigger a foot print, but a whole lot more places it won’t get stuck.

All in all, this is very workable. Walking vehicles are complicated, but they were building them in Germany of World War I, so I consider this fairly acceptable on the RPL scale.

Steam Powered Weapons

In the book Telling Our Stories: Omushkego Legends and Histories from Hudson Bay, they remark in the edge notes that a musket of 1686 had a delivered energy to target of about 377 joules energy, which puts it in the ballpark of a .38 handgun bullet. You can generate this much power with a tea-light and the amount of water that fits in a ballpoint pen.

The hundred-barrel sequence-firing gun is actually pretty easy to pipe … it’s a set of pressure valves; as soon as pressure in the first barrel drops (it’s been fired) the valve closes and shunts the incoming steam from the boiler to the valve governing the next barrel, and so on.

The bombards are the same idea. Just more steam required. However, steam will throw a 40,000 pound fighter plane down a the deck of a modern aircraft carrier at 260 feet per second. A 32 pound ball of metal seems relatively easy by comparison.

It spits lightning, too?

Ok, lightning arc weapons of any kind are pretty far out, even with modern technology. The reason is what’s call the “spark gap”. It takes 100,000 volts of electricity(100kv) to spark across a gap of about 1cm / 0.5 inch. To jump a meter, or 3 feet, requires about 10,000kv. To jump the width of a foot ball field requires 1,000,000kv. This is the power output of a town-sized generation plant. In otherwords, even with step-up transformers and the like, it’s pretty unrealistic.

The other problem, of course, is getting the electricity to spark to the right target. A modern way to do that is with a laser … ionize the heck out of the air between the two points and the electricity will jump where you want. Except they didn’t have lasers or even a theory for them in the Victorian Era. All in all, this one falls into the “pure pixie dust” category for “Reasonable Plausibily Level”.

Want to give yourself a headache? A lightning strike from cloud to ground is fifteen to twenty lengths of a foot ball field. Think about that.

It Just Keeps Going…

Part of what makes the Dragon of “The Sauder Diaries” so world-changing is that they refuel themselves. Flammables,  water and scraps of metal will be used for fuel, steam, and munitions. So long as they keep finding something – woods and a lake, or a town or a train – that they can “eat”, they keep marauding the wilds of Europe.

While it sounds plausible, it would be pretty hard to implement, mostly due to a need to do some sort of material sorting to get the right pieces going to the right storage places for future use. However, a certain amount of it could be done with screens and electromagnets … so this is about in the middle of the RPL.

Conclusion

All in all, the “Steampunk Dragon” of “The Sauder Diaries” is a pretty fanciful beast. With modern technologies and brighter minds than I, you could plausibly cram all of that into the beast as described. However, there is a distinct requirement to suspend one’s disbelief for the science of the Victorian era for one of these.

However, on an emotional level, many of us have grown up on stories of monstrous and fearsome dragons, and heroes that defeat them, often through great sacrifice. To me, that makes them worth finding a place for in Steampunk literature.

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