The Ęther Propeller

The ęther propeller is one of several prominent science fantasy elements in Space: 1889, along with liftwood and the pulp version of the solar system (i.e. an inhabited Mars complete with canals and Venus as a steamy, jungle planet populated by dinosaurs and lizard men). The ęther propeller is perhaps the single most essential invention in the Space: 1889 universe, since it makes travel between the planets not only possible, but relatively easy --- easy enough that lone individuals can basically build a functioning spaceship in their backyard workshop.

The ęther propeller was invented by Thomas Edison, who obtained the first patent on an ęther flyer. Scottish explorer, Jack Armstrong, who had accompanied Edison on the first flight to Mars, later patented his own version of the ęther propeller. Although not as efficient as Edison's design, the Armstrong ęther propeller is used by all Royal Navy flyers and most British commercial flyers, as well. In Germany, Count Zeppelin patented an ęther propeller design, which is used by the German government for all its flyers, even though it is not as efficient as the Armstrong propeller. Although the game sources mentions only these three, other inventors certainly would have gotten into the game. Competition from Tesla, Westinghouse, Behrend and others would no doubt drive down the cost of ęther propeller's and make them readily available.

The game resources provide a good deal of information about the ęther and the invention and development of the ęther propeller. But the actual functioning of the ęther propeller is left rather vague. There is discussion of the drive using electric and magnetic fields combined with spinning metal rotors to grasp the ęther and move the ship, but the details of this are not needed to play the game so it is understandable that it is left open. Velocity is constant, in units of a million miles per day. Certainly, this makes sense for use in a game since it simplifies navigation immensely. A few basic calculations that can easily be done with paper and pencil, not even requiring a calculator, are enough to determine the length of the trip, which is the basic information needed for game purposes. There is a suggestion that these velocities are achieved virtually instantly when the ęther propeller is switched on but that creates unanswered questions, such as how such huge speeds are achieved without huge accelerations (that would smash the passengers into a thin jelly inside the squashed tin can of their flyer) or why the flyer is not burned to ash by the extreme temperatures generated by air resistance at such velocities (since flyers often start their voyages within the atmosphere of a planet). There is also the problem of matching orbital velocities. If the propeller is simply turned on at the beginning of the voyage and then turned off at its end, how is the difference in orbital velocities of the departure and destination planets accounted for? Although the system makes sense for gaming, I would like something more closely based in reality for story purposes.

Several writers have provided expansions or clarifications on the operation of the ęther propeller since the game's original publication. They generally are attempts to reconcile the game's description of a fluid ęther with Newtonian physics and making the ęther propeller more like a conventional science fiction space drive. I intend to do the same thing. In my view, the ęther is compatible with Newtonian physics (see my discussion of the ęther) and probably with modern physics as a whole. Ęther propellers cause detectible wakes in the ęther, since they are interacting with it. It is apparent, also, that the small amount of power generated by the ship's solar boiler is not enough to drive the ship across interplanetary distances. That energy operates the ęther propeller which extracts vast amounts of energy from the ęther itself (perhaps zero point energy?).

My initial theory about ęther propellers was that ęther flyers did not make their voyages at a constant velocity but rather at a constant acceleration. It is true that even very small accelerations applied uniformly over a long period can build up enormous velocities. I hypothesizied that the acceleration generated by most ęther propellers was measured in hundredths of a gravity and would be hardly noticable by the crew and passengers of the ęther flyer. While very low constant acceleration would work in the depths of space, it would not suffice to overcome the aerodynamic drag of the atmosphere. Since ęther ships are still within the atmosphere (though attenuated at high altitude) when they activate their ęther propellers, the low acceleration theory is not practical. (Thanks to a number of correspondents for pointing this out to me.) Another problem with very low acceleration is that it would not be sufficient to overcome the gravity of the Sun at the orbit of Mercury. Since Mercury is colonized in the game, that is not acceptable.

So, a revised theory of ęther propeller operation is called for. I propose that the ęther propeller accelerates the vessel by generating thrust. The acceleration is at a high enough value, say one standard gravity (for comfort), to overcome aerodynamic drag and the gravity of the Sun at the orbit of Mercury (or even closer). If that amount of acceleration could be maintained through out the voyage, constantly building velocity, travel time between planets would be reduced to a few days. Since interplanetary voyages in the game are clearly intended to be weeks or even months long, then there must be a limit to the maximum velocity that can be obtained. Clearly, some interaction of the ęther propeller with its medium eliminates further acceleration once it reaches its maximum velocity. Gerry Harris has suggested that the interaction is analgous to the cavitation experienced by high speed propellers in water. Sounds good to me. Of course, that means that in the future, higher maximum velocities may be achievable as the science and engineering of ęther propellers advances.

How would this effect the performance of an ęther flyer? The ęther flyer lifts to the stratosphere, using liftwood or a lighter-than-air gas-filled envelope. It activates its ęther propeller and immediately accelerates at 32 feet per second per second. Its velocity builds rapidly. In about twenty minutes it reaches escape velocity of seven miles per second (if it is leaving Earth). After about three and three quarters hours, the ship will have reached a velocity of a million miles per day. When the flyer reaches its maximum velocity, the ęther propeller no longer produces acceleration even though it still consumes electrical current. Since the ship is no longer accelerating, the crew and passengers would experience weightlessness. Normal practice would be to switch off the ęther propeller so as to save energy and wear and tear on the equipment. It would be activated again at the end of the voyage to decellerate the flyer to allow it to enter the destination planet's atmosphere at a safe speed.

One final note. An ęther propeller that provided variable acceleration over a range from zero up to its maximum output would certainly be desirable, but is not necessarily a given. Perhaps the standard ęther propeller can manage steps of acceleration of, say, quarter power up to its maximum. Finer control is left to further invention, such as Dr. Cyrus Grant's governor.

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Space:1889 is Frank Chadwick's registered trademark for his game of Victorian Era space-faring. He has granted permission for the use of the background of Space:1889 for the stories presented here. All text, illustrations, photographs and design are © 2000-2002 Dan Thompson, except where otherwise noted.