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Could vacuum airships go from steampunk fantasy to 21st century skies?

First imagined in the 17th century, blimps borne aloft by nothing but nothing are finally ready for lift off, carrying goods and even passengers in gondolas in the clouds

IN 1670, Francesco Lana, a Jesuit mathematician from Brescia, published a small volume describing his various inventions, including a chapter entitled “A demonstration of the feasibility of constructing a ship with rudder and sails, which will sail through the air”. A sketch showed what it would look like: a typical wooden sailing boat, except that the vessel would be suspended below four copper spheres, each containing a vacuum that, being lighter than air, would provide lift.

The idea didn’t fly. No one could make spheres with walls as thin as Lana calculated he would need – and in any case, they would have collapsed from external air pressure as soon as they were evacuated. But maybe Lana was on to something. There is now renewed interest in his vision of airships sailing through the clouds, borne aloft by nothing – and this time we might have the engineering solutions to get them off the ground.

Airships have already graced the skies, of course. The earliest ones featured simple balloons filled with hydrogen. Their heyday came in the 1920s, when the familiar elongated shape of the Zeppelin carried passengers across the Atlantic in the lap of luxury: the gondola on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, for instance, featured a dining room and cabins with beds.

“You become like a ship in the ocean, but with a port that exists anywhere”

That golden age ended abruptly in 1937 with the Hindenburg disaster, in which 36 passengers died when a Zeppelin caught fire. But the dream of travelling by such elegant airborne means …

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Author: Joseph Oladokun

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