The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

The idea of the Aether Propeller for space travel seems a very Victorian-era idea but, to the best of my knowledge, no period scientist or science fiction author suggested it. It seems a modern invention of imagination. The epitome of steampunk.However, I want to explore this further and gather information on how those in the 19th Century thought they were going to get into space. There is, of course, Jules Verne's space cannon and H.G. Well's Cavorite sphere but I want more.


For example, in 1847, J.L.Riddell published "Orrin Lindsay's plan of aerial navigation ; with a narrative of his explorations in the higher regions of the atmosphere, and his wonderful voyage round the moon". His spacecraft used some sort of antigravity utilizing a magnetized amalgam of steel and mercury. It sounds neat but I haven't been able to find a copy of that story to read how that all goes together.


Can someone help with that?


I'm sure there's plenty of other things out there. I want to hear about them. Mostly period works but I am also interested in the various ways that modern authors reimagine 19th Century space travel, such as the Edison Aether Propellers of "Space 1889"

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 In 1827, George Tucker, a Virginia Congressman, wrote a satire called "A Voyage to the Moon" using the pen name Joseph Atterley. He used gravity repulsing "Lunarium" to lift his spacecraft. I have found a copy of that book online but haven't read it yet.


A book I first encountered in my elementary school library back in the early '60s, The Complete Book of Space Travel by Albro T. Gaul and illustrated by Virgil Finlay (The World Publishing Co, Cleveland and New York, 1956; concluded with a section on early space flight in literature compiled by Sam Moskowitz, with illustrations from same and short discussions of the plots and handwavium technologies involved.  Unfortunately, my copy is boxed away, as I am in the process of moving, so I can't really go into any detail; you might see if your library can get hold of a copy to peruse.
There was the movie "A Trip to the Moon" or "Le Voyage dans la Lune" from 1902. Also, other examples of modern literature are Larklight by Philip Reeve, and one by Kennith Oppel.

I have read quite a bit of credit given to Nikola Tesla for aetheric generators for the propulsion of flying machines , especially from the zero-point, free energy followers of the charlatan John Worrell Keely. From what I have read of Tesla's aircraft, his engine would have been electromagnetic in nature. When he talks of "fluids" he's not talking about the luminiferous ether but of electromagnetic fields, which have many of the same characteristics of fluids, which is why words like "current" and "pressure" are often used to describe both liquids and electricity.


The theory of the luminiferous aether was discredited by the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887, before Tesla rose to prominence. I can only guess that the mystical nature of the aether and the myth of Tesla caught the attention of the people who also commonly believe in alien saucers.


My question in this is to wonder if anyone else had the idea before these fairly modern pseudo-scientists? Who was the first novelist (or crackpot scientist) to propose that the aether could be manipulated with a pump, propeller or screw for the purpose of space travel?

It would not necessarily have been a crackpot; until Einstein's 1905 papers on the Photographic Effect, which described the particle nature of light (for which he was eventually awarded a Nobel Prize) and the Special Theory of Relativity, the Luminiferous Aether was a viable, indeed a central, theory of Physics.  The wave nature of light was well established, and, for waves to move, there has to be a medium for them to vibrate so they can move; no medium, no waves.  The Aether was the fluid which permeated all of space which light waves vibrated to traverse the vacuum of space, and had to be simultaneously a fluid of absolutely zero viscosity and friction, and stronger than steel, since light waves have such a high frequency (actually, though the substance of the Aether had to have very peculiar properties, have you looked at the theories of Dark Matter lately...?).  If there is a substance there, there must be some way to interact with it; after all, light waves do so all the time....


Actually, the Michelson-Morley Experiment did not disprove the existence of the Aether per se; it was trying to find what effect the movements of the earth through space had on the speed of light in differing angles as the light waves interacted with the Aether.  Within the limits of observational error, they didn't find any, though the movements of the earth are quite fast by terrestrial standards.  This led to Lorentz' Ether Theory of 1892-1985, which assumed a completely motionless Aether, and introduced the Lorentz Contraction to explain the lack of variation in the observed speed of light when measured in different directions, regardless of the speed the observational apparatus was moving.  Einstein took all of this and showed that the Aether was unnecessary, and if it were not necessary, then no one had to continue to try to get their minds around a substance like the Aether was turning out to be.


So Tesla was active during the latter part of the period where the Aether was still a viable theory, but, as you said, he didn't invoke it in his work.  He didn't need to; his work was adequately explained without it.  But people get a lot of things in history wrong, as all of us well know.

To propose that something so lacking in positive evidence, such as the luminiferous aether, existed in such quantities (Even Lord Kelvin described it as being "millions and millions and millions of times less dense than air") that it could be utilized as a propulsive medium would be the very definition of crackpot. In the same way that the free energy people today are still floating the idea of sub-hydrogen elements and their mystical properties of ultra-buoyancy. Poppycock. Yes, Einstein drove the last nail in the coffin of the idea of the existence of the aether but given that no one seems to have proposed the use of the aether in terms of propulsion until the late 20th century, it would seem that even people who fervently believed in the aether didn't think you could drive an aircraft or a space ship with it.


And that's what I'm looking for. Who was the first to propose that?

maybe someone took in Paul Dirac's work in the 1930's and LSD at the same time and got mixed up about the Dirac Sea theory (which laid the ground work for the concept of antimatter) and combined it with the aether and voila?

also, Einstein, after pretty much killing the aether at the beginning of the century, later used the term in his paper "Concerning the Aether," in 1924, which was a new definition of aether (the gravitational field in general relativity), not the classical sort at all. 

Here's a link to a paper presented to NASA on the subject of engineering the vacuum of space (aether) for propulsion. it mentions T.D. Lee in it, and from what I can tell the author is a mover and shaker in the aether-propulsion community...

An interesting paper Miss. Timperley.  Makes one wonder just what might be possible.

"To propose that something so lacking in positive evidence, such as the luminiferous aether, existed in such quantities...", see my comment re Dark Matter ;)


I will freely admit that I do not know of any in-period attempts at making an Aether Propeller (the spacecraft in Edison's Conquest of Mars used gravity control, not the Aether as Space:1889 did), but as long as its existence was a viable theory, there would be nothing crackpot about trying to interact with it.  Granted, by the Victorian period, what was known about what the characteristics of the Aether would have to have was giving a lot of physicists mental cramps, but it was still a viable theory as long as light was assumed to be a wave phenomenon instead of a particle phenomenon (the notion that it could be both is something that a lot of people even now, in the 21st century, have trouble grasping, as it is so different from everyday experience).  One could draw a comparison with Wegener's theory of Continental Drift; he was considered a crackpot for decades, despite the apparent similarities of continental coastlines, because, though there were geographical and biological similarities that could be explained by the land masses moving about, there was no mechanism to explain how.  All available evidence indicated that the continents did not move about on the seabed, so biological similarities were explained by land bridges, which were known to have existed and for which mechanisms did exist, and the geographical similarities by happenstance.  Plate Tectonics is not Continental Drift; Wegener was wrong, but his work laid the foundations for what is now accepted as the explanation for what he and his predecessors back to 1596 had noted.


All that said, anyone trying to make an Aether Propeller now would be "...the very definition of crackpot." ;)

You  missed my point. Even those who actually believed in the aether didn't believe that it was suitable for use as a propulsion. Yes, they believed light propogated through it but I can find absolutely no evidence that anyone even considered the posibility that something "millions and millions and millions of times less dense than air", functionally equivalent to a vaccum, could be knotted up or filtered or harnesed or collected in sufficent quantities to lift something off the ground.


Not even John Keely. He claimed to have made an etheric generator with which he powered a car, a gun and a number of other devices but all evidence is that that was all an elaborate hoax. On top of that, what he described as ether bore no resemblance to the luminiferous aether except in name. Nor did he claim that. He used the term in the way that pseudo-scientists today use the term, a way to describe something for which they have no functional description in a way that people will recognize and also in a way that makes them seem like they have secret knowledge that the "establishment' rejects.


Lacking evidence that science of the day actually believed that the aether existed in sufficient quantities and densities to be used as a propulsive, I will stick by my use of the term "crackpot."



We seem to have differing views concerning the meaning of the word "crackpot".  As I understand it, if a theory or experiment is based on what is accepted as mainstream theory, even if the mainstream theory subsequently is shown to be incorrect, it is not cradkpot.  Just because something is small or difficult is no reason to not try it; people spend entire professional lifetimes trying to find various ways to test Relative Physics, despite its general acceptance as one of the foundations of modern Physics, as scientists must keep investigating, lest someone have made a wrong assumption somewhere.  Those doing that are not crackpots; a crackpot would be someone who comes up with a notion that violates, for example, Relative Physics, and whose evidence can not be independently confirmed, yet who insists on being taken seriously, and complains of persecution when he isn't.  Contintntal Drift was indeed a crackpot notion, as I said before; Plate Tectonics is not Continental Drift.  An earlier example would be Christopher Columbus; no one would finance his expedition to China because they knew he was a crackpot.  Contrary to how many kids are taught it, Columbus was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness that the world was round; educated people in Europe not only believed it was round (there were 3 proofs known to Aristotle), but that it was 25,000 miles in circumference, as calculated by Eratosthenes in Classical Greek times.  Columbus said it was only 19,000 miles in circumference, and they knew he was a crackpot, because he was a crackpot, but a very lucky crackpot....

With notions as strange as warped space apart from physical geometry and limitations of velocity defined by luminous tension relative to finite resistance there must be an aetheric propeller in there somewhere....Probably just as floppy


The funniest part is the common lack of gravitational awareness. The mechanism being so obvious it could get you tarred and feathered (or so) to point it out, yet is considered to be as yet undefined. Is that inclusive of evolutionary pre-disposition, or simple psychosis?


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