Sci-Fi Eye: The Victorian rocketmen

MoonCould history have been very, very different? Science fiction author Gareth L Powell looks at the way a few small changes could have drastically altered our world  – and put a Victorian in space!

My eye was recently caught by The Engineer’s profile of the Victorian railway pioneer, Robert Stephenson, who is probably best known as the designer of the innovative steam locomotive Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials and achieved the distinction of being involved in the first railway fatality after it struck and killed an MP who was standing on the tracks.

Stephenson designed railways in the United Kingdom, Columbia, and Egypt, and bridges, such as the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits between mainland Wales and Anglesey. Like his friends, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Richard Trevithick, he was one of that breed of Victorian engineer who were seemingly able to turn their talents toward any challenge, be it steam locomotives, railway bridges, or steamships.

Brunel, famous for his railways, steamships, tunnels and bridges, was also responsible for designing prefabricated hospitals, forceps, viaducts, and Paddington Station.

With such talent in play, the science fiction writer in me can’t help but wonder what might have happened if circumstances had been subtly different.

For instance, what might have happened if Stephenson and Brunel had been recruited by the military? With their knowledge of steam-powered locomotion, it is not unreasonable to imagine they might have produced the first tanks to the battlefield decades before their actual debut appearance in World War I. How that would have affected history is a question for the scholars, but it’s not hard to imagine such an innovation kicking off an arms race between Great Britain and the other imperial European powers, and thereby precipitating the Great War in the late 1800s rather than the early 1900s.

victorian rocketmen
Image: Deshoff via stock.adobe.com

The same goes for Brunel’s revolutionary steamships. When the ss Great Britain was launched in 1843, she was more than just the first iron-hulled steamship; she was also the largest vessel afloat. At a time when the majority of the world’s warships were still constructed of wood and reliant on wind power to get around, she could have cut a mean swathe had she been equipped for battle instead of passenger transport. And if the Admiralty had commissioned another two or three identical vessels and installed cannons, Britannia really would have ruled the waves—at least, until the other powers caught up with the technology.

But these changes, while interesting to consider, aren’t really all that world-shaking. Had they happened, it’s likely our present would look much the same as it does now. All that would be different would be that a few conflicts happened slightly earlier. The general progression of history wouldn’t have been unduly affected. It is only when we start to consider weaponry that there is the potential for drastic change.

Imagine for a moment that Stephenson and Brunel are building a warship. Would these great minds not also turn their attention to increasing its firepower?

The aeolipile, also known as Hero’s Engine, dates back to the 1st century AD. Considered by some as the first steam engine, it consists of a radial turbine spun by steam jets. Using the same principle, it may have been possible to produce a steam-powered projectile—either some form of rocket or a torpedo—capable of delivering a devastating payload.

From there, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine such technology following a similar developmental process as the Nazi rocketry programme, with larger and larger steam-powered rockets being built. In our timeline, it took 24 years from the end of WWII to the first moon landing. If you apply a similar timescale here, driven by a Cold War between the British and German Empires (and maybe influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 popular classic, From Earth to the Moon), we can wildly speculate about Victorian astronauts in orbit by the turn of the century, and maybe a moon landing by the early 1910s.

Now, I’m picturing a union jack on the surface of the moon, with two astronauts wearing cumbersome diving suits, their air supplied by thick hoses that run back into their spacecraft—a huge contraption built of riveted steel plate and powered by the exhaust from gigantic coal-fired boilers within.  Now, that would have changed history!

The discovery of nuclear power would have led to steam rockets of increased efficiency
and power and, by now, people might have been living on Mars for the past seventy-five years. There might be half a dozen settlements on the moon, and great steel ships lumbering out towards Jupiter and Saturn—and all because two Victorian gentlemen were persuaded to concentrate on the military rather than civilian applications of their inventions.

Gareth L Powell is the author of several novels, including Silversands, The Recollection, Ack-Ack Macaque, Hive Monkey, Macaque Attack, and Embers of War. He has won the BSFA Award for Best Novel twice, for Ack-Ack Macaque in 2013 and Embers of War in 2019.