San Francisco Airships

Frequent Tales of the Talisman contributor Douglas Empringham recently sent me a newspaper article detailing airships of the nineteenth century from California’s San Francisco Bay Area. You can read the complete text of the article at

The first project the article mentions is one proposed by Rufus Porter in response to the California Gold Rush. Given the challenges of getting to the gold fields, he proposed creating an “Aerial Locomotive” that could carry passengers and cargo from California to New York.

Porter Airship

The image above is from an 1849 pamphlet advertising his idea. As it turns out, Porter actually did complete a 700-foot long prototype of his design, but rowdy visitors tore open the hydrogen bag during a Thanksgiving Day display before it could be launched. The next person in the Bay Area to attempt to develop an airship was publisher and editor Frederick Mariott who built the Aviator Hermes Jr. You can read more about this airship and see some great images at There’s even a poem by Bret Harte written in honor of the airship!

What struck me about Mariott’s design, besides being very steampunk, is that it was propelled by four small alcohol-burning steam engines. These are very close to the kinds of steam engines I imagined for the Russian airships in my Clockwork Legion series. Of course, in reality, the alcohol-burning engines were a bit too heavy and a bit underpowered to be effective propulsion in the prevailing winds around San Francisco. In the Clockwork Legion series, the Russians overcome this largely by having larger gas bags that can lift slightly heavier and more powerful engines.

I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about my two Clockwork Legion steampunk novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. I’m currently working on the third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark. Finally, speaking of Tales of the Talisman, the art director just delivered the autumn issue’s illustrations. I’ll be working on the layout this upcoming issue. Although this upcoming issue doesn’t have a story by Douglas, he will be back in the winter issue.

2 comments on “San Francisco Airships

  1. Why did an unruly mob destroy an airship’s gas bag? Now I’m curious!

    • I found some more information. Apparently he was showing the airship off to investors on Thanksgiving Day and the group got a little out of hand and tore the gas bag. I’ve updated the post to reflect that. If I had to guess, alcohol was probably involved! (Always a good way to get investors to free up a little cash, but a bad idea when things get out of hand!)

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