Steampunk Primer: Why Dirigibles, Anyway?

One of the iconic images of Steampunk is the dirigible airship, either rigid (a zeppelin), rounded (a blimp) or some imaginative variant. Along with top hats and corsets, these inflatable aircraft are part of the basic vocabulary of alternative 19th centuries—and that includes in BRASS, where the family returns to London in Episode 1 aboard such a ship, and are menaced by a hijacked dirigible with an explosive payload at the end of Season 2. (Want to find out how Lord Whitestone intends to stop it? Listen to Episode 19, released today!)

But why dirigibles? Steampunk finds its primary inspiration in the period between the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the First World War beginning in 1914, a hundred year span which incorporates enough fashion, culture and technology to provide a near-endless supply of imaginative material. While dirigibles (essentially a guided inflatable craft) were indeed invented in the 19th century, their heyday was the 1920s and ’30s, when the design and convenience of the Graf Zeppelin made them the premiere method of luxury travel. Their brief glory ended with the 1937 explosion of the Hindenberg, broadcast live on radio and captured on film, which turned the general public, not wishing to die in a fiery explosion, towards the increasingly reliable fixed-wing airplane.

Not the best dirigible advertisement.

But Steampunk is not just history, it’s a recreation of Victorian Science Fiction. And in the stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and their contemporaries, the dirigible was assumed to be the Airship of the Future, evoked in Tennyson’s Locksley Hall  as both vehicles of peaceful trade, “pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales,” and “airy navies” that would fight future wars.

It’s the first of these functions, trade and commerce, that is the focus of Rudyard Kipling’s short story “With the Night Mail,” which charts a journey via dirigible along pre-arranged flight paths from London to Quebec in the far-off year of 2000. Written in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers successfully flew at Kittyhawk, Kipling’s dirigible mail service is guided by a series of colored searchlights down predetermined flight paths. While there’s little that’s accurately predicative about such travel, the author does envision wireless communication between the craft and air traffic controllers decades before such a system was established.


Even more influential is H.G. Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air.  Wells’ narrative include a variety of fixed wing aircraft (and a protagonist who, like the Wright Brothers, is a bicycle engineer), but the majority of the airships are Zeppelins, a vast aerial armada constructed by the Germans for a sneak attack on America. By the turn of the century, it was a given that war would break out eventually between the European powers, but Wells was one of the first to predict the advent of aerial warfare both between crafts and through bombardment—not to mention not just a European war, but a true World War, including a Sino-Japanese alliance that turns large swaths of America and Europe into rubble.

Some of this early science fiction does feature fixed wing aircraft, most notably Jules Verne’s 1886 novel Robur, in which the megalomaniacal Robur threatens the world’s governments with destruction from his vast craft The Albatross. Unlike the dirigible of the narrator, this is a heavier-than-air craft, some sort of propeller driven auto-gyro, where the usually scrupulously realistic Verne gets a little vague on details. (When Robur returns in Master of the World in 1904, it’s with a craft that’s a speedboat, submarine, aircraft and automobile! Take THAT, 007!)

But in most Steampunk worlds, dirigibles still rule the sky. Perhaps it’s simply wish-fulfillment to a slower way of life. As an alternative to our world of crowded security lines, cramped seats and limp meals, the romance of joining a gang of airship pirates for high-altitude cutlass duels—or if you prefer, a leisurely cruise in the clouds, complete with stewards and champagne—is pretty irresistible.

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