Questions From The Audience – July 25th, 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


This is the second part of a three-part set answering this Question From the Audience. In the first installment I got about halfway through the first novel in “The Sauder Diaries”, sub-titled “By Any Other Name”. So, without further ado, allow me to continue on discussing the various technologies that Hans encounters and uses, and evalutate “The Reasonable Plausibility Level” (RPL) of each.

Science and Techology of “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name”, Part 2

Double-barreled Flare gun

The original flare gun was designed by American naval officer Edward Wilson Very (1847–1910). The system he developed and popularized was a single-barrel, single-shot breech-loading pistol with a distinctive snub-nose.

The double-barrel shotgun is well known as a Victorian period weapon, albiet from America. While the Very pistol is effectively a 4-guage shotgun pistol, the earliest actually recorded example of a double-barrel flaregun I could find was the German WW2 Walther Arms SLD.

So while it would be entirely possible that there was a two-barrel Very flaregun, they didn’t actually exist in the Victorian era.

Steam-powered rocket-glider

In 1841, Charles Golightly was granted a patent in Britian for an aircraft using a steam rocket. However, the idea was considered so rediculous he was unable to find funding to build a prototype.

In 1842 Henson and Stringfellow together received British patent 9478, covering the “Aerial Steam Carriage“. In 1848, they had a working model that used a steam engine to fly for short hops. The design, by modern eyes, was a large wing-surface glider that carried a steam engine. It seems that the original intent was to use the steam engine for climbing to altitude and followed by long periods of gliding to lower altitude, followed by another powered climb. However, the project was abandoned before real success was made.

The system described in “By Any Other Name” would work to some degree. “Live” steam is a remarkably good way of moving energy, and a simple expansion-thrust nozzle would certainly provide a good shove once the valve was opened as described. Wether or not it would be possible to build a light-weight insulated pressure vessel with Victoria-era technology that would hold enough live steam for “a minute or so” of flight, I don’t know.

It’s plausible, but to my knowledge, it did not actually exist in the period of the story.

“Sargasso” Balloon Mines

Named after the “Sargasso Sea”, an area in the middle of the North Atlantic thought capable of ensnaring and trapping sailing ships in the ropes of seaweed there, the job of these devices is to provide dangerous obstructions to airships flying past them.

Floating ocean-navy mines existed in the 16th century, used by China against Japanese pirates. In the Crimean War, British ships were damaged by underwater mines deployed by the Russians in the Gulf of Finland.

The real “trick” here is the parachute/drogue system to get the “balloon mine” into the air, and then the “chemical candle” used to inflate the balloon itself. We know from the first installment in this article series that the parachute was known and used by the Victorian era.

In 1780 Italian physicist Felice Fontana discovered a chemical reaction called the “Water gas shift reaction“, in which carbon monoxide reacts with water vapor to form carbon dioxide and hydrogen. You need the temperature of a lit match to get the process going and then you’re good to go.

The problem comes back to the volume of the hydrogen you’d need to lift the mine. Weighing in at 240 pounds each, you’d need 240 cubic yards of hydrogen to make a balloon neutrally bouyant in the air. To generate modest lift, you’d need about 270 cubic yards. That works out to about a 25 foot diameter balloon. For comparison, a weather balloon is 16 feet across.

While there is no real-world equivalent to these little barrels of airshipman’s horrors, they are entirely possible based on what was known and available in the Victorian era. All in all, not a hideous RPL.

Cinder balls

These cannon shells are explained by Annika to be “…hollow cannonballs packed with a mixture of tar, coal and spruce paste around an explosive core. They explode after a six second match burns down, forcefully splattering the inside of the ship with burning sludge…“.

Spruce resin is generally accepted by mountain hikers and survivalists to be one of the best naturally available fire starters in the forest. A match will get it going, and it produces a remarkable amount of heat for volume. Tar and coal, of course are known to be both flamable and messy.

Hollow cannonballs, known as “shells”, packed with explosive material were used by both sides of the US Civil War, in six, nine and twelve pound sizes. So-called “Carcass” shells, filled with flaming material that also emitted poisionous fumes, were fired from cannon in the early 1670’s in France.

So while the particular composition of the “Cinder ball” is unique to the world of the Sauder Diaries, it is an entirely plausible development in airship-to-airship munitions.

Kodak Camera

In 1888, George Eastman was selling the “Kodak” camera. It came with 100 frames of film in it, pre-loaded. When the roll was finished, the entire camera was sent back to the factory for film processing. This was, in effect, the first commercially produced disposable camera.

“Cudahawk” Airship-to-Airship Wire-Guided Rocket

By 1870, powder-fueled rockets were common. Some applications used them as line-carriers, able to tow a thousand feet of line behind them, such as to a stricken ship off-shore so that a heavier life-line could then be run out. However, it wasn’t until 1903 that Tsiolkovsky suggested that liquid fuels might do a better job.

Electro-mechanical telegraph systems were in heavy use before 1875, the year that Alexander Graham Bell patented the “accoustic telegraph“. Part of the power of Bell’s innovation was using multiple frequences on a single wire. This concept allows the nine-button touch-control pad Hans uses in the wire-guided system. Each button triggers a different configuration of the control fins, which in turn changes the direction of the rocket, steering it.

In the early 1760’s to the late 1780’s, the British Army was repeatedly beaten by Hindu troops using infantry and artillery rockets company-sized attacks. The advanced rocket technology used on them during the Anglo-Mysore Wars directly resulted in the British development of the Congreve rocket, which figured in the British victories of the Napoleonic Wars. The weapons of the Mysore Rocket Corps had a striking range of 1000 yards (900+ metres).

While the individual pieces required for the “Cudahawk” AAWGR, the first documented wired-guided missiles were developed in the 1940’s by Germany as a result of WW2 requirements. Interestingly, the German engineers started with radio-controlled weapons, but they proved sufficiently suceptible to jamming that they switched to wire-guided.

Like the “Cinder Ball”, while it is an entirely plausible weapon, it is ultimately a unique fixture of the world of The Sauder Diaries.


That wraps up the second part of three about the plausibility and reality of the science and technology of the setting of “The Sauder Diaries”.  Let me know what you think.

Next week … Dragons!