The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

The Air-Midshipman's Primer-Song
(Second Draught)

2013 August 26
2013 October 28

The following was written (rather hastily) as a contribution to Dr. Melanie Karsak's interesting Steampunk University series. With typical grandiosity, I have decided that it should eventually balloon to roughly ten times its present length. I also plan to add a line-by-line prose commentary; for the moment, the in-line references will have to do as a supplement, providing a few of the details blurred by poetic license.

Updates will appear at Net Advance Retro from time to time.


The Air-Midshipman's Primer Song,
Being an Instructive Mnemonical Poem
Suitable for
Cabin Boys & Girls,
and All Others New to Our Aërial Vessels

I. Of Levity, and of the Two Brash Brothers from Whom Montgolfières Take Their Name

  1. Soaring, Muse, above the wind,
    See us heavy, weighty things;
    Though to spinning planet pinned
    Each too soars who, soaring, sings.

  2. Paper making was their trade,
    First ascenders to the sky.
    All the money that they made
    They spent learning how to fly.

  3. They knew little. Much was known;
    Newton's heirs were long grown old.
    Great savants had half-way shown
    Half the laws of heat and cold.

  4. These two knew this by report,
    But they trusted things they saw.
    What they saw did not support
    Newton's universal law.

  5. From their factory's chimney poured
    Soot and smoke. It always rose
    Falling upward. Did the Lord
    Grant exemptions when He chose?

  6. Gravity, of which they'd heard,
    Theoretically applies
    To all matter. Then what stirred
    Chimney-smoke and soot to rise?

  7. Could its mass be less than nil?
    If so, fill a bag with it.
    Bottled smoke then surely will
    Carry up the bag a bit.

  8. Thus the Brothers Montgolfier
    Harnessed smoke, or so they thought ...
    Made it lift things in the air.
    What if they'd been better taught?

II Of the Learnèd Savant from Whom Charlières Take Their Name

  1. News, although its pace be slow,
    Travels surely around France.
    Learnèd doctors, once they know,
    Smite their brows for their missed chance.

  2. "Let's assume all's fair and square,
    They've done what they say they did;
    Still it's clear this clever pair
    Keep their real method hid.

  3. "How could anyone accept
    Antigravitating smoke?
    Buy the rest, but that reject;
    Surely it must be a joke.

  4. "Likely, in their secret lab,
    They've evolved some novel gas
    Whose each volumetric slab
    Has exceedingly low mass."

  5. High-school kids still know his name,
    Lawful Charles who thus speaks.
    Laws for gases brought him fame;
    It's a new gas now he seeks.

  6. Or an old one. "Yes, perhaps
    That one, easy to inflame!"
    (When a few more years elapse
    Lavoisier will coin its name.)

  7. Thus the hydrogen balloon
    Rose into the world's ken;
    Armstrong's journey to the Moon
    Started here with these three men.

  8. Epics start in medias res;
    There are always older tales.
    Old philosopher, undress,
    Bathe, and think of gold-smith's scales.

III. Of Archimedes His Principle

  1. Hiero, King of Syracuse,
    Hired smiths he did not trust:
    "Why should I endure abuse?
    Paid for steel, they sell me rust.

  2. "What then of this golden crown?
    Is it gold, or gold alloyed?
    Archimedes, friend, come down:
    Thus this fraud may I avoid."

  3. All remember what came then:
    How the sage ran naked out
    From the bath, and this was when
    He exclaimed his famous shout.

  4. Archimedes, wise and great,
    Why didst thou not this explore?
    Plato ( Phædo 58):
    Earth's an airy ocean's floor.

  5. Whether any solid chunk
    ("Earth its element" your phrase)
    Floats or sinks (so ships are sunk)
    Hangs, in part, on what it weighs;

  6. But it turns, you found, as well,
    On the water's weight displaced.
    That's the reason for your yell,
    Was it not, that day you raced?

  7. Now remember Plato's sea:
    All the earth's submerged in air.
    Buoyant air must therefore be
    Pushing objects everywhere.

  8. If the content of a jar
    Could weigh less than when unsealed
    It would rise like Luna's car
    Here's the key to flight revealed.

IV. Of the Lifting Agent, Less Dense Than Air at the Ground.

  1. Greeks, so clever and so sly,
    You had theory, but lacked ... what?
    Say the Greeks had learned to fly ...
    Then again, those Romans ... But ...

  2. Leave to sandalpunks such thoughts.
    Now: what's lighter than cool air
    And available in lots
    To fill up a Charlière?

  3. Methane. (Well, for now it's cheap) ...
    Hydrogen's two-proton mass
    Makes it worth one's while to keep
    That explosive, common gas ...

  4. Helium, native to the Sun
    Seeps through Texas underground.
    Squandered in the name of fun,
    Rarely and with hardship found:

  5. Its disdainful, noble ways
    Make it safe from plebian fire,
    But, in giving it due praise,
    Bear in mind its cost is higher.

  6. Vacuum might seem best of all:
    Father Lana, priest of God,
    Saw an empty metal ball
    Fixed upon a metal rod.

  7. Bold idea -- but, alas,
    Air would crush the metal flat.
    Better stick with some light gas:
    Scientists concur with that.

  8. (Nineteen-fifty, there around,
    Racing took another track.
    There, hot-air balloons abound:
    Bottled propane brought them back.)

V. Of Non-Dirigible Balloons.

  1. Albuquerque! Hear it call:
    "Come down to our yearly fest!
    Montgolfières like leaves in Fall
    Blow below Sandía Crest!"

  2. Archimedeans too, of course --
    (Air when heated grows more thin) --
    They are raised by buoyant force
    'Til the same without and in.

  3. Noisy; dangerous to ride;
    Doomed from time to time to hit
    Power-line or mountain-side
    Since they can't steer clear of it;

  4. Floating stoves: They hardly seem
    Butterflies en route to Oz,
    Fairy-fluff, incarnate dream.
    It's enough to give one pause.

  5. That the clumsy Montgolfière
    Still prevails is jolly odd.
    Hail instead the Charlière,
    Rising silent as a god!

  6. Leaving the Socratic beach,
    Aëronauts, prepared to die,
    Drifting out of human reach,
    Mapped the layers of the sky.

  7. Who can keep their tongues from praise
    Of the Charlière pioneers:
    Seekers after cosmic rays,
    Astronauts of other years?

  8. Still, these graspers for the moon
    Would have given much away
    For a steerable balloon:
    Dirigeable, en Français.

VI. Of Dirigible Balloons.

  1. Sailors tried all that they knew:
    Rudder, paddles, oars, and sail;
    But an airship's no canoe
    All these tricks were bound to fail.

  2. Blown along, great schooners skim
    On the interface they ride.
    Submarine-like, airships swim,
    Sunk in Plato's ocean's tide.

  3. They are fishes. Shape them so:
    That's the secret. Big cigars
    (Prolate spheroids) channel flow
    Well enough to carry cars.

  4. Thus began the airship's reign --
    Well, that's strong, I must admit.
    Always threatened by the 'plane,
    They were no great threat to it.

  5. Gaul-like, dirigibles are classed
    Triply. First, "non-rigid" ones;
    Then the rigid; then at last
    Hybrids, so convention runs.

  6. First, let's take the simplest kind.
    Some once named them "Class B (Limp)".
    Any child's balloon you find:
    Fins and engine make a blimp.

  7. Next the Zeppelin. Rigid chest
    Holding gas-bags uninflate,
    Like the lungs within your breast.
    Fill them up: you levitate.

  8. "Semi-rigids"? France built most.
    Crash and fire took their toll,
    But these centaurs still could boast
    They were first to reach the pole.

VII. Of Propulsion.

  1. Archimedes! Come again,
    Patron of the engineer;
    Teach air-women and air-men
    What propels the ships they steer!

  2. "Screws are double ramps wrapped 'round
    Helixwise. When they are spun,
    They will sink into the ground
    Or the ground comes up the run.

  3. "Screws in water, with a dip,
    Carry water 'round a flue.
    That can push along a ship.
    Air is just a fluid too.

  4. "Any ancient could have built
    Boats with canted paddle-wheels.
    Give them lightweight wings that tilt,
    And balloons to lift their keels.

  5. "Wings held level: steady flow.
    Watch the stream-lines passing by.
    As above, so too below:
    Hermes told you so, not I.

  6. "Change the angle of attack.
    Still at first the streams flow straight.
    Then a vortex leaves the back:
    All the wing will elevate.

  7. "Wings outspread in wind thus rise,
    But an angel flies not so;
    Whirling wings will lift the wise,
    Or propel them to and fro."

  8. Helicopters were too tough
    (Robur conquered them, of course)
    But propellers were enough
    To supply a forward force.

VIII. The Catalogue of Ships.

  1. Now I praise the famous ships
    Whose mere names evoke each age.
    As their names pass from my lips,
    I cry "Hand off and engage!"

  2. Précurseur! Half blimp, half clock.
    Just a toy? Henri Giffard
    Saw her worth and did not mock;
    Still the starward road was hard.

  3. Just a few in thirty years,
    (First Giffard in his cigar) ...
    Some with steam and some with gears ...
    Most could barely lift their cars.

  4. Vive La France! Let us extol
    Her electric-powered flight.
    Here was lift, here was control,
    Aviation was in sight.

  5. Number Nine: the private yacht
    Of a genius-millionaire,
    When Santos-Dumont still sought
    Aircraft lighter than the air.

  6. Shenandoah: first to use
    Helium for safety's sake.
    Lost at sky one fatal cruise:
    Whom the gods desire, they take.

  7. Great Graf Zeppelin, of all times,
    You were boldest and were best.
    All meridians, many climes,
    Saw you flit from branch to nest.

  8. Hindenburg brings up the end;
    Broken crosses mar her tail.
    Flames consuming her portend
    Greater flames soon to prevail.

IX. An Unwelcome Intrusion by the God Mars.

  1. Searchlights blaze ... the fields as well ...
    England's burning: not the Blitz.
    This forgotten glimpse of Hell
    Has no Adolf, only Fritz.

  2. Let the God of War explain:
    "Airships, like all works of man,
    Squarely fall in my domain.
    I will use them when I can.

  3. "Once they only served for spies,
    Tethered safely, far from harm,
    Hoisting men with watchful eyes,
    Quick to sound the first alarm.

  4. "In the clash of Blue and Grey,
    Ladies, barred from active fight,
    Gladly gave their gowns away
    So observers could take flight.

  5. "Curious Germans came to learn.
    One, named Zeppelin, took good notes.
    Fifty years on, cities burn
    Where the hostile Zeppelin floats.

  6. "Fifty years on, from the heights,
    Airship crews play cat and mouse.
    England quails when Zeppelin nights
    Shadow-over Heartbreak House.

  7. "Terrifying, yes, but still,
    For defenders, there is this:
    When your foeman seems to fill
    Half the sky, he's hard to miss.

  8. "What is more, he cannot gird
    Armour 'round his heart and reins.
    Light as air? A bit absurd.
    In the next one, I'll use 'planes."

X. Valediction, for the Future.

  1. Silence! Shut thy barbarous maw!
    Mars, enough! We long for peace.
    If the airship has this flaw,
    Give it gladly its release.

  2. In the age of nerves and jazz,
    Peaceful Zeppelins ran commutes.
    Thirty-Fourth Street's Empire has
    Narwhal horns with ancient roots:

  3. Roots as old as dreams of flight,
    Silent flight in lucid dreams,
    Dreams to halt the hideous night,
    Filling night with astral gleams.

  4. Jets are also dream-born craft,
    (Dream-borne and dream-powered, too):
    Sleek and bright from fore to aft,
    Swift and powerful and new.

  5. Thus two paradigms are met,
    One of patience, one of speed;
    There the airship, here the jet ...
    One for leisure, one for speed?

  6. Maybe not. The times may change.
    Obsolescent things return.
    Distant things may come in range,
    Old resolve meet new concern.

  7. California's hangars now
    Hold a novel craft or two:
    Airship-makers have learnt how
    To make ships while out of view.

  8. Friends, farewell. Go out, explore,
    Seek the wind-whales, dare the blast;
    Airships, risen or no more,
    Fuse the future with the past.