Ah, the blimp/zeppelin wars return.

Interesting post (via Fark Geek) from the Smithsonian on a 1908 article that half guessed-right (airships) and half guessed-wrong (airplanes) on the essential uselessness of lighter and heavier than air flight; comments there led to this Scientific American post from last year that essentially argues that alternate universes are effectively impossible*.  It’s mostly of interest because it involves lighter than air flight – which people seem to like just having around, for some reason – but it’s also interesting to see how badly you can mess up predictions when you don’t extrapolate from current trends correctly.  From the 1908 article:

It is said that the leading military nations are vying with each other at the present time in the development of military air-ships, but this does not prove that these structures can be made practically useful in the serious business of actual warfare… Of all the apparatus ever proposed for use on the battle-field, a flying-machine is beyond all question the most vulnerable. It offers an ideal mark to the bullets of the enemy. Its limitations of weight forbid its protection by any sort of armor. Had the flying-machine been developed forty or fifty years ago, when projectiles were limited to small velocities and short ranges, it might have performed some service in observing the enemy’s forces; but with modern infantry rifles discharging projectiles with an initial velocity of 2,700 feet per second, and with light artillery fitted to discharge a perfect hail-storm of bullets having equal velocity and range, the rise of an air-ship at any point within several miles of a hostile army would be merely the signal for its immediate destruction.

I believe that they’re including airplanes in that discussion (although the Germans used Zeppelins effectively in the realm of naval reconnaissance in WWI**); and it’s quite true: a 1908 or 1909 airplane would have been a flying, spastic duck in the Western Front of 1915.  Which is why people built better airplanes in the meantime.  Easy to mock, except that we do the same thing; ever notice that all the old predictions of 2012 had more flying cars and spaceships, and a hell of a lot less in the way of ubiquitous computer processors?  Yeah, there’s a reason for that: we mostly all guessed wrong about technological trends, too.  And we’re probably going to keep doing that as well.

So it goes.

Moe Lane

*To quote from Ken Hite’s indispensable Suppressed Transmission 2: The Second Broadcast (“An Alternate-Historical Alphabet”)

Z is for Zeppelin

All Change Points (q.v.), from Xerxes (q.v.) to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility (q.v.) that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.

Thus: no practical Zeppelin traffic possible, no alternate universe theory to explain quantum mechanics.  Pretty straightforward.

**Or so Wikipedia tells me.  I knew that the bombing campaigns didn’t work out all that well for Germany, but I was curious if they got some other use out of them.


  • DaveP. says:

    I used to have a book on space and space flight, co-written by (IIRC) Isaac Asimov back in the late 1940’s. It did all the normal things about how we could build space stations, colonize the Moon, et cetera… ande it also had a section explaining that space combat was purely impossible.
    See, if you aimed a bullet or a rocket at an enemy spaceship, it wouldn’t be there when the warhead arrived, so those were out. Energy weapons were quite impossible: if a “energy beam” was powerful enough to burn through an enemy’s hull, it would have to be even hotter at its point of emission (to compensate for energy loss over the course of its travel to the target) and would therefore have been hot enough to melt its emitter as soon as it was generated.
    Take that, science fiction fans!

  • Anthony says:

    I’ve seen an update about “energy beams” being impossible. The problem is that while lasers are pretty efficient at getting energy from the point of emission to the target, they take a lot of energy to generate, so there’s a whole lot of waste heat to dispose of within the spaceship firing the laser. However, that problem doesn’t really apply to guided missiles.

  • Murgatroyd says:

    Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is going to be severely annoyed with that piece.

  • DaveP. says:

    A.- They weren’t talking about the energy source, they specifically said that the “ray projector” would itself melt.
    And IIRC (it’s been over half my life ago) their take on guided weapons was that no guidance system you could fit into a missile would be as smart as a ship’s pilot.
    Steve den Beste had a fascinating conversation on the topic of space warfate, many years ago. It’s probably still in the archives of USS Clueless, his old site.

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