The Steampunk Era

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Naval technology went through a brief but crazy steampunk era before settling on the modern battleship design:

And nothing was more steampunkish than the era’s naval ships. HMS Inflexible (launched 1876), shown above, is as good an example as any. [...] In this image she retains an auxiliary sailing rig — later reduced to pole masts for signaling and to support fighting-tops armed with light weapons. Her main armament is 4 x 16-inch muzzle-loading rifles. (Most navies had adopted breech-loaders, but the RN reverted to muzzle loading after a couple of nasty accidents.)

Her two turrets are offset to port and starboard — ‘Murricans of sufficient geekitude may recognize the similar overall arrangement of USS Maine, of 1898 “remember the” fame. (Infamy, perhaps, from the Spanish perspective.) This turret arrangement was in considerable vogue at the time, in an effort to maximize all-around fire.The turrets could, in theory, fire directly ahead and astern, and even through gaps in the narrow flying deck. In practice, trying this caused considerable blast damage to the ship.

The underlying assumption was that — given the slow firing rate and doubtful accuracy of those enormous guns — a battle would likely devolve into a melee instead of an orderly line-astern engagement. This same speculation lay behind the most notorious feature of steampunk-era warships — the ram bow, which ultimately accounted for precisely two “hostiles,” along with some half a dozen “friendlies.”

Nevertheless the ram bow became such a defining feature of warships that it was retained into the early 20th century. Indeed, most early-generation dreadnoughts had ram-shaped bows, though no actual reinforced rams.

HMS Inflexible also carried another weapon intended for a close-range melee: a pair of underwater tubes for launching torpedoes. These, as it turned out, were to have a much bigger future than the ram bow. Even at the time they were recognized as having extraordinary implications. Inflexible’s stubby 16-inch muzzle-loaders, or any comparable guns, could only be carried by a large and very costly ship. But even a fairly small boat could carry and launch a torpedo.

It soon occurred to some analysts (as we would call them now) that this weapon could revolutionize not only tactics but naval strategy. By the 1880s torpedo boats became the space fighters of the late-Victorian imagination, dashing in to strike at cumbersome death stars battleships. The British and French even experimented with torpedo-boat carriers.

Probably things would not have worked out quite so neatly as the torpedo prophets imagined, even if there had been a suitable war to test out their doctrine. The same technological progress that provided 16-inch guns and ironclads to carry them, as well as torpedoes and torpedo boats, soon produced so-called quick-firing guns, and these were mounted on the big ships. Torpedo boats could no longer attack with impunity.

Even before the heyday of torpedo boats, another creative idea for deploying torpedoes got a trial. HMS Polyphemus (launched in 1881) was a “torpedo ram.” A fairly large ship resembling a surfaced submarine, she had an armored turtle deck for protection, the inevitable ram bow, and several torpedo tubes along with reload torpedoes.

Tech progress (specifically the quick-firing gun) rendered Polyphemus obsolescent by the time she entered service — a typical fate of steampunk-era warships. But she would end up being indirectly immortalized in science fiction.

By the time HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, in the late 1990s, the torpedo-ram concept was already long obsolete. But HMS Thunder Child in the novel is described as a torpedo ram. The idea must have stuck in Wells’ mind, some years earlier, as the epitome of advanced naval technology.

One commenter notes that an era is defined not so much by the span of time but what we remember:

If WWII came a decade earlier, our imagery would be full of all-metal biplanes. If it came a decade later, radar-fused proximity shells could have made conventional attack by aircraft on battle fleets as suicidal as WWI’s frontal assaults against machine guns.

He mistakenly notes that trench warfare was never seen as the likely outcome of a large war prior to WWI breaking out, when Ivan Bloch predicted exactly that, and H.G. Wells cited his work in The Land Ironclads.

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