Steam rocket?

Would it be possible, given 1880’s level technology, to put an item in orbit? Using a steam powered rocket, or a gunpowder driven rocket?

I was daydreaming here at work about the possibility of a steampunk space opera that uses at least semi-legit science.

Leaving out air scrubbing, provisions, or the possibility of actually making an airtight cabin for now… could it have been done?

I should think you could make a cabin airtight to a vacuum if diving bells in the early 19th century were airtight to water pressure.
Anyway, I’ll sign on to see the discussion.

Now that I think of it, they used hydrogen in the early 19th century for balloons. How did they handle it? Could they pump and store it to use as a fuel?

I will not suggest the Barsoomian ray…:slight_smile:

From A System of Chemistry in Four Volumes
by Thomas Thomson, Thomas Cooper - 1818

Once you have perchloric acid, you’re most of the way to Ammonium perchlorate, the major ingredient in most solid fuel rockets, such as the space shuttle boosters.
Chemistry wise, Count Von Stadion’s grandson could have built himself an orbit reaching rocket in 1880.

No need to make the cabin airtight; you’re putting an item in space, not a person.

One problem: your hypothetical “item” would probably have to be the rocket itself, since you’d have no way to control it and therefore leave your object in space once it was launched. I suppose you could rig a mechanism to eject something after a set amount of time, but it wouldn’t be reliable; no way to test it under the actual stresses involved, etc.

ETA: Are we limited just to 19th-century manufacturing technology, or to 19th-century science? By definition, it wasn’t possible to launch anything into orbit in the 19th century because nobody did- but with a modern understanding of ballistics, escape velocities, and so on, things might be different.

19th Century Manufacturing, augmented with significantly more advanced mathmatics and computing ability.

Given that it appears to be at least feasible, I’ll work on conceptualizing a manned rocket. Or, in theory, a manned station, which is my idea… hehehe

ETA: I suppose I could have just asked if orbit was possible. Once you get into orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere.

Did not Issac Newton know how to put something in orbit?
Poster Boy for Ignorance, that’s me.

Poster boy, my ass.

Hollerith had punch cards like I used to write FORTRAN programs in 1725.

This is looking good.:slight_smile:

Er, I wrote FORTRAN in 1975, Hollerith wrote loom controlling cards in 1725.

That’s pretty cool. I think the point remains that Newton would have had no idea how to put something into orbit, even if he understood the general principles of orbit.

Indeed. One of the basic tenets of Steampunk is that the Brits actually continued to fund Babbage, or someone like him, and the growth of analytical engines (originally from the 1820’s) and their descendants lead to an information-age like society during the Victorian era.

There are other tropes (airships, “robots” and brass goggles, for example) but the primary idea is of plunking down modern computing power in a pre-electical society. Sort of.

I want to take it a step further, and assume some crackpot decides that space is the place to be.

100 years ahead of time. HEhehe

Apparently he knew that given enough velocity, an object would achieve orbit.

The USS New Jersey had an analog mechanical computer to target shell fire.
I used analog computers based on resistance and capacitance to calculate process control in graduate school. Benjamin Franklin had capacitance, Leyden Jars in the 18th century. The only problem is using cards to replace turning dials.

Well, sure.

I know that too, but if you gave me a foundry, all the titanium I could eat, and giant bottles of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, then came back in 20 years, all you’d find is a big mess.

And I’d be talking in a really high-pitched voice.

An old Pournelle novel, “King David’s Spaceship”, describes a planetary government desperately trying to develop space travel with Victorian-age technology. (They’re about to be colonized by a spacefaring empire and will be admitted under better terms if they demonstrate capacity for space travel. Hey, I didn’t say it was a good book…) Pournelle’s SF tends to be pretty hard, technology-wise.

They end up with a gunpowder-powered Orion-type craft - I would love to have seen Pournelle’s design notes on that - which may or may not be viable IRL.


It may perhaps be tiresome to point out that steam is not an energy source, though it can be a useful energy storage medium.

Could you store enough energy in the form of steam - or, better, superheated water which can be turned to steam - to accelerate a rocket to orbital velocities? Doubtful. A big problem would be the size and weight of the necessary pressure vessels.

Actually, not a chance. The amount of energy density necessary precludes the use of stored pressure powered vessels. The energy per unit mass stored in the compressed steam alone–provided you could surround it with a perfectly adiabatic layer to prevent it from radiating away thermal energy–would be insufficient to propel even itself to orbit (~30 MJ/kg of final payload mass at ~6 km/s orbital speed), and this assumes that you can compress air indefinitely; as a practical matter, at a certain amount of compression the temperature will be so high that it will compromise the structure of any practical material. The use of energy dense, highly volatile fuels and oxidizers like kerosene and liquid oxygen, or UDMH and red fuming nitric acid, is necessary to make orbital velocities. In addition, you would need to have a rocket system capable of staging (to reduce dead mass) which means complicated sequencing and ordnance systems, a materials capable of handling the pressures and temperatures involved in orbital ascent, and most difficult for pre-20th century technology, control systems compact yet sophisticated enough to fly the rocket to a specified orbit.

A solid propellant motor in the 19th century, as Squink suggests, is right out. One might be able to make ammonium perchlorate, but being able to mix it in a binder consistently enough to provide energetic propulsion without exploding is actually very tricky, as is setting it off in a reliable, controlled manner to begin with. Then you have to make a case to contain the motor; a riveted structure–the only option prior to the invention of electrical arc welding (available in the late 1800s, but only in very limited applications and without the kind of standards and quality control necessary to ensure consistent penetration)–is not viable, and there were no fiber wound composites.


Actually, Hollerith was not born until 1860. Basile Bouchon invented papertape in 1725.

They didn’t store it, they made it on-site using a generator that reacted iron filings with sulphuric acid, both a darn sight easier to transport than hydrogen.

Given the difficulties of taking the steam with you, could you have a ground-based launch facility using steam-power?
Jules Verne basically used a big cannon to fire a habitable shell into space but is it remotely possible that steam could somehow replace explosives as the propelling power?

A steam-powered railgun of some sort, perhaps?

I’m guessing not!

The Space:1889 RPG has space-ships powered by “Solar Boilers”; which use mirrors and magnifying glasses to focus the sun’s rays to boil water to power the steam engines on the ships.

They get into space in the first place using “Liftwood”, which is a fictional (read: Magic) wood with lighter than air properties, or else they use airbags like on a Zeppelin.

The story I’m working on at the moment uses Radium to power starship engines and has liquid fuel short-flight capable rockets to get into orbit in the first place.

One of the great things about Steampunk is that allows for a great deal of Hand-Wavery as long as the idea sounds vaguely plausible. :smiley: