The Airship Age
in London Magazine
FROM time immemorial, the great God of War has claimed the first tribute of every invention that could render his strength more terrible and his cruelty more hideous. The first steel was used to kill, the first gunpowder to propel a bullet. The first roads of any importance in Europe were constructed that armies might move more rapidly along the path of conquest. The one primal instinct of the human race is to fight; and every brain is on the alert to seize on some new discovery which will give the fighter an advantage over his adversary.
It is not strange, therefore, that the imagination, fired by the prospect of the vast changes which the steerable airship will bring over the face of the whole world, should first draw a picture of the revolution in naval and military warfare. A terrible picture, this—death dropping silently from the clouds or from some grey blur that is scarcely visible in the blue sky; the smoking wreck of battleships, powerless to strike a blow even in the hour of their destruction; fair lands devastated and swept from end to end; shattered armies, blackened and crumbling fortresses, the ruins of proud cities; men living in caves and burrows to escape the rain of gun-cotton and dynamite. And then the meeting of aerial fleets, the rip of silk, the whirr of broken wings, the headlong fall of men and ships into the abyss.
But if the inventors of the airships were to give us no more than this, mankind could very well dispense with their gifts. The means of offensive warfare are already increasing at such a tremendous rate that even the greatest nations are feeling the burden of keeping pace with each other in the struggle for supremacy. The introduction of a force which may destroy thirty million pounds’ worth of property in five minutes is not likely to
arouse much enthusiasm among those who will have to pay the bill. Fortunately, however, the airship promises to do more for the inhabitants of the world than wreck their cities and rob them of their lives.
From the remotest periods of antiquity to the present day the progress of civilization has depended largely on the means of communication at the disposal of the human race. At first man was content to use his feet, then he harnessed the horse, the mule, the ox, and the camel, and brought them into his service. Then he went forth on to the sea in ships; and distant lands were brought into touch with one another, with the inevitable result that the less-civilized nation benefitted by the contact.
Then for a long while—for many centuries—there was no further progress in the way men moved from one place to another. The people of the Middle Ages were no better off in this respect than the Romans or the Carthaginians, To ride on horseback was still the speediest form of locomotion; and the ships that ploughed their way slowly from land to land were still small and incapable of facing the terrors of the great ocean storms.
Then, with the coming of the steam-engine, a new and stupendous force came into the history of the world. Greeted at first with doubt, and even with ridicule, it has lived to prove itself one of the greatest factors in the civilization of the human race. Every year the network of railways extends itself over the land, bringing men into closer touch with each other, and every year the turbulent seas are being brought more and more into subjection; and wherever there are deep waters and harbors the modern Leviathan of the ocean can carry men with speed and safety.
Then there came the telegraph, so
swift and wonderful that a man could ask a question of a friend on the other side of the world, and receive an answer in less than a minute and a half.
And then, in later times, the motor, which promises to revolutionize the internal goods and passenger traffics of every country in the world, It has even been proved, in the Pekin to Paris race, that a motor-car can traverse the wild and trackless wastes of the desert; and the possibilities which lie before it are so great that it may supersede every other form of locomotion on both land and sea.
And the eventual conquest of the air, to which all the discoveries of steam and electricity must one day yield supremacy, has been made possible by the petrol-driven engine, which at present is the only machine that is light enough to give the requisite power in proportion to its weight.
The mere balloon was a great invention, yet useless for all practical purposes, as it was of necessity at the mercy of the winds. The aeroplane, from which much is expected, and from which much may come, is at present so far off a state of practical utility that a few hundred yards represent the record of its flight. But the steerable balloon is an accomplished fact; and the future—at any rate, the immediate future—of the navigation of the air will rest with the airship.
And what a future ! The brain reels at the thought of it, and the most vivid imagination can scarcely picture the stupendous change which will before long sweep over the face of the whole earth.
Yes, the whole earth! Not merely those portions of the globe which are known to us, but lands where the feet of a white man have perhaps never yet trod, and the dark places of the world, which from the day they first evolved from chaos have kept their secrets hidden from the eyes of all men—black, white, red, or yellow.
For at last man will have found his feet on the great, smooth road over which he can move without finding
any obstacle to his progress. North and south, east and west, the pathway of the air extends over the whole surface of the globe, All the barriers of earth and sea will disappear, as though at the touch of a magician’s wand. Impassable mountain ranges, unfordable rivers, impenetrable forests, the ice-strewn plains of the Polar regions, and the sand-swept deserts of Africa; all these will no longer prevent men from traveling where they will in their airships. The explorer will in a few years be a relic of the past. There will be no places left to explore. Every inch of the earth’s surface will be mapped out, surveyed, and named. The novelist, who desires to write of unknown lands, will have to turn to other worlds than this.
But though the work of exploration may only last a few years, what golden years those will be for the men who will gladly risk their lives in order to be the first to set foot on an unknown land ! These men, the pioneers, will not wait till the airship has reached such a state of perfection that their journeys are as safe and easy as cycling along a smooth road. They will take the best materials that are ready to their hands, and set out on expeditions from which, it is to be feared, some of them will never return. Mile after mile will they push forward and month after month they will establish new bases for those who come after them. Yet whatever they suffer, they will be repaid by the glorious ecstacy of the moment. Whether they see beneath them the wide, green forests of the Amazon, the ice hummocks of the North, or the dun, level sand of the desert, they will feel all the glow of victory, even though they realize that their own lives will be the price.
There is to be no waiting. At the time of writing, Walter Wellman is preparing to start for the North Pole in the airship “America.” It is now eleven years since Andree went forth and never returned. Much has been done and learnt since then in the science of aeronautics. The passage of the airship is a matter of hours, not
of months. Success or failure will come in the space of a few days. There will be no long winters in the ice, no anxious waiting for news. The “America” will glide across the Polar regions with the speed of a railway train. Her victory will be swift, or else she will fail. It is safe to say that Walter Wellman will be the first of hundreds who will follow his example in trying to explore the unknown regions of the earth,
So much for the explorers—the pioneers. After them will come the man of commerce, the missionary, and, it is to be feared, the soldier. Year after year the uncivilized portions of the globe will be brought into closer touch with civilization. The airship will no longer be an experiment ; there will no longer be any risk in using it as a certain and reliable means of locomotion. The Airship Age will have begun.
And when this day comes, there is little doubt that every other form of locomotion will eventually be superseded. Trains and steamers and motor-cars will remain for many years, perhaps for centuries, but they will only be retained for goods traffic. Human beings will prefer to travel in airships, which will represent more nearly than anything else the perfect poetry of motion.
It is difficult to think of any invention which can ever supersede the airship except the aeroplane, or some contrivance which will give each separate individual a pair of wings and enable him to fly as easily as he can now walk or swim. In any case, the future pathway of the world will not be on the land or through the water, but in the air. And all inventions relating to locomotion will be confined to improving aerial navigation. The first step has been taken. The steerable airship is now an accomplished fact. It is reasonable to suppose that when the inventive faculties of all the world are concentrated on perfecting the form of the ship and the machinery, progress will be almost startling in its rapidity. It is the first step that counts. It is taken after years—nay,. centuries—of experiment. But, when
it is once taken, the faltering feet break into a run, and scientists and mechanicians will move swiftly towards the final goal.
This is the story of the man who fell asleep in London in the year 1907, and woke again in the Airship Age, 19—?
The first thing that struck him was the silence. When he fell asleep, his last waking impressions had been of the roar and din of traffic. The thunder o£ motor-’buses, the shriek of engine-whistles, and the clang of trambells were echoing in his ears, and only grew fainter as sleep overcame his senses. But now, as he woke, there was almost complete silence.
“It must be early morning,” he said to himself; “one of those few hours of quiet that come between the noises of night and day.”
But, as he looked out of the window, he saw that the sun was high in the heavens. The street was almost empty. Only a few people were astir. There were no vehicles of any kind.
Then a shadow passed between the sun and the window—a small shadow, such as a bird might make. The man did not look up. His eyes were still riveted on the street below. He wondered if some terrible plague were abroad. Else why this silence and these deserted streets?
Then another shadow passed, larger than the last. Still the man did not look up. He gave the matter no thought, supposing that a small cloud had drifted quickly across the sunlight. He still watched the street, and for a moment he experienced a sensation of fear. Then he heard a faint whirr, and, looking up, saw a long, cigar-shaped balloon gliding down between the rows of houses. It carried twenty passengers, and bore the words “London Aerobús Co.,” in large, red letters. It moved at the rate of twenty miles an hour, and was apparently as easily steered as a ship or a motor-car.
And then, as he watched, other airships came in view, some large and grey, constructed without ornament or
any desire to please the eye; others small and gaily decorated, glittering with gold-leaf and polished brass and nickel. Private conveyances, these, evidently, for not a few of them were blazoned with armoria* bearings and the drivers were in livery.
For a time the man was fascinated by the strange sight. Then a doctor entered the room. At first the talk was of the strange disease which had sent the man to sleep for many years, and of all that had happened to his friends and affairs during the long period of oblivion. Then he questioned the doctor about the airships.
“Ah, yes,” the physician replied ; “the world has certainly moved on a bit. Let me see; was the ‘Patrie' built before your illness, or the ‘Parseval’? Do you remember the names of Wellman or Count Zeppelin?”
“Yes; I remember the names, but little else.”
“Well, Zeppelin’s rigid airship carried eleven people over Lake Constance, and could have carried three times the number. It measured 128m. long and 12m. in diameter. The size of this ship was so enormous that it seemed as though the problem of size and expense would prohibit the carrying of any large number of people. But at that time an interesting discovery was made. It was calculated that, by increasing the diameter by only 2m., the tonnage would be increased by 4,000kg., while the weight of the airship would only be increased by i,oookg. This meant that Zeppelin’s airship would have carried seventy people if its diameter had been increased by 2m.”
“I see. But this increase in diameter could not go on indefinitely?”
“It could go on until the diameter was a sixth of the length—that is to say, Count Zeppelin’s airship could have been made 21m. in diameter, in which case it would have carried over 200 people. Experience has shown that when the proportion of length to diameter is six to one, the best results are obtained.”
“Most interesting,” said the man; “and now, I suppose, instead of tak-
ing a train or a cab or a ’bus, one takes an airship?”
“Precisely. Directly the difficulty of cost was overcome, and the ships were brought to such a state of perfection that they could move either with or across the wind, with equal ease and certainty, the world realized that every other form of locomotion must go.”
“A great change, indeed; but I suppose the world goes on just the same? After all, there has only been an improvement in the means of locomotion.”
The doctor laughed. ,
“The change is greater than you think,” he said. “All the industrial, social, and political conditions of the world have changed. In the first place, there is no longer any possibility of war.”
“Airships—and no war ! Impossible! Why, I remember that every nation in Europe was eager to be the first in the field with an air-battleship.”
“You remember rightly. And, but for the possibilities of the airship in warfare, it is conceivable that it would never have reached its present state of perfection. But five years ago there was a great European war; and the horrors of it were so hideous that the whole world agreed to disarmament. The fleets and armies of. the five combatants were ultimately wiped out.”
“And England ? What of her naval supremacy?” cried the man eagerly.
“England has no Navy nor naval supremacy. This would have happened in any case, even if there had been no war. Directly the air supplanted the sea as the great highroad of the world, England’s position as mistress of the sea was no longer of value. Her strength had lain in the fact that she was an island. For centuries she had made use of her insular advantages. She is no longer an island, either from a military or commercial point of view. Her boundaries are no more difficult to cross than the boundaries of France or Germany. In fact, what was her strength at first became her .weakness. Before war was abolished she had still to carry on her vast com-
merce by means of ships, which were at the mercy of the airships of other countries.”
“But surely England was not behind hand? She could make airships as well and as quickly as any other nation.”
“She was handicapped from the start,” the doctor replied. “Her motor industry was far behind that of France and Germany. Besides, the very fact that she was an island was against experiments in aeriel navigation. Aeronauts did not like the sea in the early stages of the airship. They liked to be sure that they would alight on dry land. The British Isles are small; and the man who ascended in a balloon might soon find himself in the water. France and Germany had nearly the whole Continent of Europe at their disposal. And so it came to pass that England, when the supremacy of the sea no longer mattered, found herself left behind in the race for power.”
“And now?” this man asked eagerly. “How does she stand now? Plas she lost her Colonies, her independence?”
“She has retained all her Colonies, and is better able to rule them than she ever was. She is no longer an island—a great sea power. She is as much part of the Continent as France or Germany. She is a great continental land power. Her aerial fleet was second to none till the year before last.”
“The aerial navies were disbanded by common consent; and the power of every nation is now reckoned neither by the number of its soldiers nor the range of its artillery, but by its commercial stability and its capacity to breed men of worth and intellect.”
“And the other nations?”
The doctor did not answer, but, leaving the room, returned with an atlas.
“Look at that,” he said quietly. “It will explain to you better than words what has happened in the world.”
The man turned over page after page of the atlas, giving vent to exclamations of surprise as he noted the
changes which had taken place in the history of nations. Germany and Austria-Hungary were now one Federation, which had extended its territory oyer the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor to the borders of Persia. Turkey had ceased to exist. Japan had evidently gained the supremacy in the East, as China, and even part of Siberia, were under the standard of the Rising Sun.
But more extraordinary still than the redistribution of territory was the way in which every part of the globe was mapped out. Darkest Africa was now as well surveyed and as well known as Surrey and Sussex. The two Poles had already been claimed by European powers. Russia and America had taken the North/ and England the South. The wildest nomad tribes were now in subjection. The Bedouins and the Esquimaux were both under the heel of civilized races. In the whole wide world there was not a single patch of uncharted land, not a single square mile that had not been claimed by one of the great nations of the earth.
“It is wonderful!” said the man, as he closed the atlas and stared out of the window at a passing airship. “I always thought that the conquest of the air would bring great changes, but I thought that they would be only surface changes. I never dreamt that the boundaries of empires would be altered, and that in a few years every unknown portion of the globe would be mapped out as though it were part of England.”
“The change is deeper still,” replied the doctor. “It is something more than the shifting of geographical boundaries, something greater than the surveying of unknown regions. -The triumph of the airship bids fair to bring about the universal brotherhood of the human race. Already war has become impossible, and men are able to devote themselves to 'the spread of truth and morality. The savage will soon be as extinct as the dodo. Every little island in the Pacific, every inaccessible place in the midst of vast continents, is now in touch with the great cities of Europe and America.
A fortnight ago an airship went round the world in fifteen days, crossing both Poles on the journey. Soon the time will be reduced to ten days. Do you realize what that means ? It means that the light of civilization must very shortly shine on every member of the human race. There is no corner so remote or so dark that it cannot be reached by the airship.”
In a few days the man who had slept went out into the world, and saw with his own eyes the things he had heard. The absence of traffic in the streets and the new swift means of locomotion had made London a very pleasant place to live in. He noted with feelings of thankfulness that there was no discharge of ballast as the airships glided to and fro across the city. He had expected a continual rain of sand, which would have made all the town unendurable, and would have even been a considerable nuisance to dwellers in the country. But there was nothing of the sort. The inventive faculties of man had soon been able to overcome this difficulty ; and the rise and descent of the airships were regulated by a less primitive method than casting out weight or releasing gas.
He noted, too, the great advantage the aerial traffic had over that which used to run through the streets. Not only was the superficial area of the atmosphere much greater than that of the roads, thereby enabling vehicles to pass on the same plane with less danger of collision, but the depth of the atmosphere allowed the airships to pass along different planes. The slow-moving machines kept close to the earth, and the faster ones swept above them.
For a while the man was content to see the changes in the great metropolis, and to enjoy the new experience of traveling from one part of the city to the other. Then he purchased an airship of his own, and commenced a series of tours through England.
He found that the country had benefited even more than the towns from the introduction of the airship. There was no longer any talk of agricultural depression, or of the depopu-
lation of the villages. The new means of locomotion had brought the rural districts into close touch with the cities. Enormous numbers of men, either rich or of moderate means, lived right in the heart of the country, and went to and from their business every day. This had a leavening effect on the rural population. The laborer was more intelligent, and realized that the world was not bounded by the limits of his own parish. He was better housed and better fed. He had money to save, and was able to think of other things than how to drag out a base existence.
Everywhere there were signs of prosperity. Trade was good, food was cheap, and the enormous burden of taxation placed on the shoulders of the nation by naval and military requirements had been removed.
A visit to the various 'ports and harbors round the coast showed that the shipping had not yet shared the fate of the vehicles which had once been used on land. The fleets of the air were not yet able to cope with the millions of tons of merchandise which enter and leave our shores every year. There were no longer any liners, but the great cargo-boats were as busy as they had ever been.
Having completed a survey of his own country, the man resolved to visit the Continent, and then to travel to those lands which had only been explored since the steerable airship had become a practical means of locomotion.
He spent a year in touring through Europe ; and everywhere he found the same advance in civilization. There was light on the dark Steppes of Russia, and the turbulent Balkan States had settled down into a peaceful and industrious community under the German flag.
He crossed Asia Minor into the desert of Arabia, and then made his way over the African continent, traversing it first from east to west, and then from north to south. The charts that were stored in the cabin of his airship were so complete that the aeronaut in charge was never out of his reckoning. The map was cover-
ed with a series of small red spots, exactly three hundred miles from each other. These were bases; and on their efficiency the whole system of aerial navigation depended. At each of these places the voyager would find petrol, if he needed it, and also a machine for recharging the balloon with gas.
From Africa the traveler flew into Asia, where Japan was now the supreme power. Here he was much astonished at the progress made by a nation that fifty years before had only just emerged from barbarism.
Then he visited South America, now one great commonwealth; and for the whole of three days he hung over the trackless forests of the Amazon—a wide, green ocean of leaves
that no man had ever looked upon before the age of the airship.
Thence he made his way through North America to the North Pole; and as, wrapped in furs and securely ensconced in his warm cabin, he gazed across the plains of rugged ice, he thought of the many lives that had been sacrificed—lives of brave men who had resolved to overcome the stupendous barriers of Nature or die in the attempt.
“The age of exploration is over,” he said to himself. “The brain of man has triumphed over every obstacle. He has at last been given dominion over earth and sea and air. There will be light in the darkest places of the world.”