We can be on fairly safe ground in believing that the earliest suggestion of steam as LTA lift gas was by that under-appreciated genius Sir George Cayley.

In a contribution dated 24 December, 1815 to the "Philosophical Magazine", he wrote, referring to hot-air airships:

" using steam in lieu of heated air for inflating the balloon, or at least a great mixture of it with the heated air. The power of steam is greater than air at the usual temperature in Montgolfier balloons in the ratio of 18 to 11, although the first inflation will cost more fuel in the ratio of 2.6 to 1. The resistance to a steam-balloon will be only as 1 to 1.38, when compared with one of the same power inflated by heated air; and hence a considerable saving of power would be the result of adopting it. But several inconveniences arise upon the introduction of steam into balloons, the chief of which are the necessity of doubling the structure, so as to suspend the steam balloon within one of heated air or gas, and of the materials being incapable of absorbing water. However, I think it very possible that the following lines of Dr. Darwin may eventually be realized:

Soon shall thy arm, unconquer'd steam! afar
Drag the slow barge or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air.
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud."

(Reproduction images here)

Even in 1815, Cayley's acumen had summed up in a nutshell several of the obstacles to the use of steam as lift gas. His suggestion relates to a powered airship, and naturally he was contemplating using a steam engine for propulsion, since absolutely no alternative (other than muscle power) was conceivable at the time; even electric motors hadn't yet been invented, let alone the dreaded infernal combustion engine!

Moving up to the 20th century, in German Patent 214,019 (1908) Dr. Hugo Erdmann proposed the use of superheated steam as lift gas; the details may be found here, both in the original German and translated into English. The insulating material suggested is eiderdown. I know of no attempt to implement this concept in practice.

The pre-eminent postwar apostle of steam lift gas for airships was Hermann Papst, a rather obscure figure. I'd like to find out more about him..... He patented several concepts relating to the subject in Germany, other European countries, and the USA. In US Patent 3,456,903 (1969), of which the text and drawings may be found here, he proposed a double walled envelope for a steam airship; Papst believed that such a double walled air-inflated structure would be very effective for insulation (I have my doubts). His US Patent 3,897,032 (1975), of which the text and drawings may be found here, relates to a method of adding heated water vapor to lift gas. And his US Patent 4,032,085 (1977), of which the text and drawings may be found here, relates to an airship (which may be a steam airship) with pressurized front and rear compartments.

All of the above patent proposals describe (hypothetical) airships buoyed up by steam. While they may not absolutely qualify as "wacky patents", it is certain that the monopolies they conveyed never proved of any concrete benefit to anyone, and probably neither stopped anyone doing anything nor encouraged anyone to do anything.

As for the complementary idea of using steam as lift gas for a free balloon, as far as I know this was first suggested by a W. Newman Alcock in a long-defunct ballooning newsletter "Wingfoot" in 1961. He went into the concept at some length - details can be found here. And a couple of notes by David Young appeared in Aerostat in 1973/4 - copies here. However, the only suggestion I have so far found in patent literature is in a 1991 French Patent laying-open publication 2,684,952 to Andre Giraud, of which the text and drawings may be found here, both in the original French and translated into English. It describes the use of a ground boiler for initial filling of the envelope, among other concepts - he seems to have invented that important concept. I don't know if Giraud ever got anywhere with actual implementation... he was actually the Minister of Defence under Mitterand during the Cohabitation, so he may have been too busy....

Mr. Brian Boland of Boland Balloons has informed me that some time ago he and his wife, during a stopover in Iceland enroute from the US to Europe, actually made an attempt to fly a balloon filled with steam. Geothermal steam is very plentiful in Iceland, and is used for providing space heating in houses as well as for power generation. He tells me that he succeeded in inflating his full-sized balloon with steam at the Blue Lagoon (a man-made warm water lake that has become a tourist attraction), but that the unremitting winds unfortunately proved too violent for flight. This was the first time a flexible bag had ever been filled with steam, as far as I know; and pp. 448-449 of "The Efficient Use of Steam" by Oliver Lyle (HMSO 1947) seem to confirm it....


However, the Montgolfier brothers did actually succeed (by accident rather than design) in filling the very first balloon to fly with a mixture of hot air and a minor proportion of water vapor.

They deliberately moistened the straw which they burnt for heating the air in their envelope, under the mistaken impression that the resulting smoke had some special tendency to rise. Some additional lift was certainly obtained from the water vapor produced in this manner, but presumably only an insignificant amount. A description of their thought processes can be found here; this is a very good article.

Further, there is an ingenious type of low-tech balloon made of black plastic, filled with warm air saturated with water vapor to a proportion of the order of 40 gm/m3.

It appears that this type of balloon has been brought to its highest development by the French, who term them "bulles d'orage" - meaning "storm bubbles" - because (according to one interpretation) their operation parallels a certain meteorological situation: as the warm air cools, the water vapor condenses upon the inside of the envelope, and these water droplets are reheated and revaporized by solar radiation, so that the air/water vapor mixture is kept warm. With modest payloads bulles d'orage are capable of attaining very high altitudes, of course only during the daytime. Accounts of such balloons can be found here and here and here.

Specifically, the great apostle of the bulle d'orage appears to be a Monsieur Jean-Paul Domen. The text and drawings of his most instructive European Patent laying-open publication 524,872 can be found here, both in the original French and translated into English. It describes a sophisticated type of bulle d'orage. He even seems to have performed a brief manned flight, sort of a hop..... flying hanging from a bag made from black plastic garbage bag material taped together may not be everybody's cup of tea.... One has to respect the French! This is a picture of J. P. Domen in the air:

I suspect that getting down in a controlled fashion may have been a bit of a problem..... I'd like to find out more about J. P. Domen's redoubtable efforts. Readers, please help!


Strangely, steam has been used for propelling a manned LTA craft, just once, and steam has been used for propelling a manned HTA craft, just once (if one discounts Sir Hiram Maxim's short accidental uncontrolled flight, and certain rather apocryphal accounts of other obscure pioneers).

In 1852, Henri Giffard's dirigible was the very first navigable aircraft to fly.

Accounts can be found here and here. This craft was driven very inadequately by a 3hp steam engine. As far as I can ascertain, nobody has ever subsequently propelled an airship by steam (yet!). However the idea has been used in fiction, especially comic fiction, numerous times - see a very funny and well-researched story here for example ... What is it about the conjunction of the concepts of steam and airships/balloons that is so hilarious anyway?... I believe that "Castle Falkenstein", a well-known computer game also features the "Aerial Steam Navigation Company" and its many steam-driven (but not steam-lofted) airships; this type of fantasy is termed "steampunk".

The Doble steam car constituted the pinnacle of the steam car art. In 1933 the Besler brothers in California powered a light aircraft with a converted Doble steam engine, and actually flew it. This noble effort deserves to be better known. Various descriptions in various formats may be found here. The last of these sources repeats interesting rumors of other steam aircraft being built (in 1934) in Germany and other countries, but no further information on these apocryphal efforts has come to light.... Readers, please help!

It appears that Besler only flew the plane for a few short flights. After three years building it, according to the references ! Despite all the wordy camouflage in the quoted accounts, there must have been a good reason for giving up. My steam car guru's opinion - one possible opinion among many - is that the condensation apparatus must have been inadequate, despite the explicit statements to the contrary, and that water consumption precluded longer flights. Since it is stated that the combustion air compressor was electrically driven, I personally suspect some problem in that area...

Besler took out a couple of patents which appear to relate to the propulsion plant in this airplane: USPs 1,951,339 and 2,070,075. I do not know the antecedents of another miscellaneous patent, "Steam Power Plant for Airplanes" to W. Leathers, USP 1,563,504. If interested, you can download these patents from the US Patent Office here.

Currently, I am only aware of two other serious studies of steam power plants for aircraft. In 1926 E. E. Wilson of the US Bureau of Aeronautics wrote a 30-page report (NACA Technical Note #239), which can be seen here, describing an experimental lightweight steam generator for aircraft built by the US Navy Department. This is an extremely interesting and detailed document; the structure of the steam generator is quite sophisticated, although it could be somewhat bettered with modern practice. The final conclusions relating to steam power for aircraft are pessimistic, mainly due to condenser weight considerations. And in 1932 the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation proposed a steam plant for powering an airship, but I have not been able to locate any copy of the relevant document. The US Bureau of Aeronautics condemned this proposal as over-optimistic in a dismissive report (Design Memo #120), which can be seen here.

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