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Questions From The Audience – July 10th, 2012

Last updated on November 26, 2012

“I’d love to hear some more about ‘real world science’ versus ‘technology used in The Sauder Diaries’. How does it differ?” — Matt Jenkins


One of the hallmarks of Steampunk is that it is often typified as “Victorian Science-Fiction”. In otherwords, the “science” component of the story needs to be within the scope of Victorian understanding. For example, Jule’s Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
is all well thought-out and reasonably plausible; the only hitch was that no one actually had the –ability– to build a ship like the Nautilus. The science theory supported the design, but the metalurgic reality did not.

I’d like to draw your attention to a phrase I just used: “reasonably plausible”. What I term as the “The Reasonable Plausibility Level” (RPL) is the difference between what the average reader will say “yeah, ok, that makes enough sense that I’ll ignore the pixie dust” instead of “this is so outrageous that the author clearly thinks I’m stupid”.

Part of managing the overall RPL of a story is blending enough real-world science into the mix that the absolute junk science is forgivable. So with that said, let’s take a look at the “By Any Other Name” and talk about a few of the technologies that Hans sees and uses as part of the story.

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

The Bloody Rose

The Bloody Rose herself is actually not possible based on real-world science. The “liftiest” stuff we know of is hydrogen gas. It will lift ~0.5kg per 1m^3 of gas. Helium is about 90% that effective. Given a vessel built of spruce the size she is described, with the crew and guns she carries, her total volume required of hydrogen gas would be a cylinder 100m in diameter and over a kilometer long. A neat row of spheres on each side of her beam would be nowhere near enough to get the job done.

Which is why I call the stuff in her gas bags “lift gas” and don’t touch upon it beyond that. It’s pure pixie dust and happy thoughts. However, most readers –like– the idea of “flying sailing ships” and so they are willing to be generous with the RPL on this one.

The beam-mounted masts are another bit of conceit. The problem with sails is that you need a keel. The rough difference between water and air in terms of reistance is that the drag caused by a 3cm x 3cm square on the hull of an aquatic vessel is equal to a full sheet of plywood in the wind. That’s why on China Clippers the sails are very, very massive and the keel is realatively modest.

In otherwords, science says you can’t –sail– an airship into the wind. You can run ahead of the wind on sail in about a 90-degree wide arc, but anything on the beam or into the wind is right out. Again, this design is purely a nod to the Steampunk mythology of “flying sailing ships”.

The steam boilers using “Roper-Ludstrom” pistons for power generation are completely Victorian era technology. However, most people would have expected either John Watt’s name there, or perhaps Porter-Allen. I went with “Roper-Ludstrom” because Sylvester H. Roper built a steam-powered motorcycle around 1868, and Ludstrom founded one of the first companies building steam locomotives in Europe.

The Bloody Rose’s motors, as well as many other systems, are electric. Power generation for industrial use dates to 1832 with Hippolyte Pixii’s dynamo. This is real and available technology for the Victorian era. Likewise, the electric motors are real and available; Ányos Jedlik built a workable electric motor in 1855. He also built a model electric motor-propelled vehicle that same year. Major improvements in design and scale happened in 1873 and 1886.

Power is stored in reserve in “Plante chemical batteries“. This is also valid technology for the era. Gaston Plante invented the lead acid storage battery “wet cell” in 1859. I debated getting really silly and using fuel cells instead, but I didn’t think anyone would buy that. They were developed by William Grove 1839, and produced energy using hydrogen and oxygen just like the modern ones on the Space Shuttle.

The “Electro-Magnetic Inductive Polar Aerostat Lift Engine,” or “EMIPALE” is pretty much covered in pixie dust. The concept of magnetic repulsion is pretty much known to everyone and thus makes this believable. However, with current modern-day super-conductors, you’d need about half a square kilometer of magnetic lift surface to get a pirate with a musket to fly. To do anything meaningful with the flight characteristics of the Bloody Rose, you’d need something the size of Rhode Island, or thereabouts.

The brains of the EMIPALE, of course, was the differential analyzer. The differential analyser is a mechanical analogue computer; aka “drum computer”. It’s real. The concept for one was first discussed in 1836. James Thomson published a design in 1876. Here is the divergence, however; the first one built was an electrically operated fire-control computer in 1912. So this is one of those places where I am stretching the RPL a bit.

The concept of a “coal slurry” fuel was developed in the 1950s by the Russians, who were trying to cut down on stack smoke and avoid coal dust explosions. Essentially, in the real world, it’s ~65% ground-up coal floating in water. That essentially makes the coal into a liquid fuel. Using oil instead of water has never been tried in the real world, since it makes a cheap fuel (coal) more expensive for dubious gain.

In the Sauder Diaries, this is my version of a “flex fuel” system. The system will use any mixture of oil and coal that the feed mechanism can move into the firebox, meaning that the pirates can use whatever they steal. Efficiency isn’t the objective; survival through flexibility is. It would likely work just fine, but there is no Victorian Era equivalent.

The harpoon grapple used to latch onto another ship to force them to fight a boarding action is another amusing temportal mash-up. Harpoons for whaling have existed for 8000 years in one form or another. The deck-mounted harpoon cannon was first patented in 1870 by Svend Foyn, but it was intended to catch whales, not ships.

The concept behind the harpoon grapple is a bullet-shaped projectile that will punch through the hull of an airship and then snap a set of grapple-like flukes open to triple it’s surface area, so that it cannot be pulled out. On the tail of the harpoon is a metal cable that can withstand both the stress of being used to winch two ships together, but also the attempts of a panicking airshipman with an axe to sever it.

There is no equivalnet to this that I have been able to find in the Victoria Era. That said, all of the technologies required to build it existed.

The “Bernoulli foils” of the Bloody Rose are used to dive and climb under power. Daniel Bernoulli was a Swiss mathmetician that published “Hydrodynamica” in 1738 which, amongst other things, established the math required to build lift surfaces. Well known and well understood in the Victorian era.


The “gliderchute” is a fusion of two valid technologies; the glider and the parachute. The parachute was first successfully used as an escape system in 1793 by Jean-Pierre Blanchard. André Garnerin refined the design to use folded silk about a decade later.

The glider itself can be documented as early as the 1100’s. In the 1890s, Otto Lilienthal built controllable gliders that he was able to take ridge soaring.

In my mind, the “gliderchute” is essentially a modern paraglider rig that is designed to deploy like a jumper’s parachute. It is probably somewhat more triangular in shape when unfolded, with the point of the triangle being the trailing edge. There are a few things close enough to this design in the real world that the RPL here isn’t bad at all.

Air pistols

Air rifles date back to the 17th Century and were found in calibres up to .51 with muzzle velocities of up to 1000fps. According to Wikipedia:

The celebrated Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804) carried a reservoir air gun, later believed to be the Girandoni Military Repeating Air Rifle in Dr Robert Beeman’s Collection. It held 22 .46 calibre round balls in a tubular magazine mounted on the side of the barrel. The butt stock served as the air reservoir and had a working pressure of 800 psi (5,500 kPa). The rifle was said to be capable of 22 aimed shots in 1 minute. That air rifle is measured to have a rifled bore of 0.452 in (11.5 mm) and a groove diameter 0.462 in (11.7 mm).

What I –can’t– prove is the existance of the military-grade air –pistol-. Air rifles yes, air pistols, no. So, I erred on the side of conservatism with Arrieta’s “little assassin’s gun”, making it a muzzle load and requiring a recharge after every shot. All the reading I have done thus far suggests that if I’d made it a tube-feed .55 six-shooter, I likely would not have been overstating abilities.


Named after the principle of Galvanism that was used in their creation, these are essentially Mary Shelly’s Modern Prometheus. The field of research stemms from real world scientist Luigi Galvani who, during the period of the 1780s and 1790s, investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals. Amongst other things, he noted that he could induce motion in muscles of discected animals with electrical current.

However, using electricity for re-animism, a hallmark of “classical” Galvanism as depicted by Shelly, has never panned out in the real world. During the period of the Victorian Era, however, this was an accepted field of research that was part of the cutting edge of medicine and biology. The Reasonable Plausibilty Level of this one isn’t too bad. We all likes our Frankies.

The Variable Pitch Propeller

This is a tremendously important invention for both aeronatuical and marine applications. It’s real world inventor, Wallace Rupert Turnbull, was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame because of it’s significance. The only problem with it being included in “The Sauder Diaries” is that it was invented in 1922.

That said, the concept was first –proposed– in 1871 by a Frenchman named J. Croce-Spinelli. It even used hydraulics to change the blade angles. So, much in the same vien as the differential analyser, I’m stretching reality a bit.

The “Octopus”

As desicribed in TSD, a “Octopus” is a heavier-than-air craft that uses a combination of bernoulii foils (lifting wings) and eight tiltable propeller pods to augment the lift from its minimal gas-bags. Based on what we know about “lift gas”, clearly there is some pixie dust involved in the design here.

The tiltable propeller pods are classic VTOL design. Really, this thing is a massive helicopter platform with baloons and stub wings to help. However, the first helicopter to have working industrial value only flew in 1936.

But how far fetched is the “Octopus”? Enrico Forlanini flew an unmanned helicopter in 1878. It powered by a steam engine. The problem is that the lift-to-weight ratio basically meant that all it could lift was the engine and the fuel. There was no way to add passengers and still get off the ground.

However, in 1876, the team of Otto, Daimler and Maybach patented and started building the prototypes of 4-stroke internal combustion engines. In 1885, Daimler received a German patent for the supercharger.

The parts were all there. The perfection wasn’t.

The rocket-powered purse & taser glove

The rocket-powered purse is really a rocket-powered hammer that looks like a purse. As such, it did not specifically exist in the Victorian Era. However, rocket-powered striking weapons date back to Medival China, and gun-powder charges for accelerating weights on a swing arm date to the 1700s. The steam hammer — an industrial blacksmithing tool — dates to the late 1830s. It’s fairly plausible that someone could have combined these concepts and technologies into a disguisable format weapon.

The taser glove, on the other hand, is out in the left field of accuracy. By extension of research into Galvanism and eletricity, the ability to incapacitate someone with electricity would have been well understood. The idea of the electric fence was discussed in 1889 by Mark Twain. The problem is the capacitor required.

Now, the precurstor to the Leyden jar was invented in 1746. The chap who invented them even jolted himself so badly with them — a la taser — that he said he wouldn’t do it again even if you gave him France as compensation. However, to carry enough current to drop a man with a slap and leave him down would require a crate-sized power pack. Per slap.

Marconii Beacons

This is just a standard radio beacon with the name of it’s inventor used for its description. However, Marconii only started his research and development into radio transmitters in the mid-1890’s. It wasn’t until 1899 that a 60+ nautical mile radio trasnmission was made. These real-world events take place after the book’s setting in 1888.


That gets us to about the half-way mark of the book. I’ll save the second half for a subsequent blog post.

As you can see, an awful lot of research and reasoned thought went into the science and technology portrayed in “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name“. For me, that’s part and parcel of writing “good” Steampunk; holding true to the science-fiction style of Jules Verne is important. Providing a background with blinky lights is good. Being able to explain to your reader what they do and make it sound believeable is better.

Published inAuthor SpaceSteampunkThe Sauder Diaries

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