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Two Adventures from the 1960s

27 Sep

Here’s a couple of old fashioned science fiction novels from the heyday of Poul Anderson – spaceships and interesting aliens.  Be warned, I’m an engineer and that shows in my choice of extracts. There’s also plenty of lively dialog in these stories, and interesting characters.

The Star Fox (1965)

One of my all time favourites, the story concerns an industrialist (Gunnar Heim) financing and then commanding an armed privateer to harass an alien species which has conquered a human populated world. The Earth government is dead set on appeasement and refuses to accept that there are any human survivors on the world so it’s somewhat of  a ‘man of honour doing what he must’ story. There’s actually relatively little combat but plenty of action, especially during a trek across the ruined landscape of a hydrogen atmosphere world, fighting off a walking forest and ancient sentinel robots. The alien Aleriona, exemplified by Cynbe ru Taren (‘Intellect master of the garden of war‘)  are also nicely drawn, an ancient race who distrust humans because we’ve developed so fast.

A ship raised from the planet. Forces pulsed in her gravitrons, meshed with the interwoven fields of the cosmos, drove her out at ever-mounting speed. As Aurore fell behind, space grew less distorted by the star’s mass. She would soon reach a point where the metric approximated a straight line so nearly that it was safe to draw the forces entirely around her, cut off that induction effect known as inertia, and outpace light.

A million kilometers away. Fox II observed her:  saw by visible light and infrared, felt with a ghostly quickly-brushing whisker of radar, heard faint ripples of her drive in space, snuffed the neutrinos from her engines, and came to carnivore alertness.

“If races less powerful than we change, that makes nothing more than a pullulation among insects. But you, you come in ten or twenty thousand years, one flick of time, come from the caves, bear weapons to shake planets as is borne a stone war-axe, you beswarm these stars and your dreams reach at the whole galaxy, at the whole cosmos. That can we not endure! … Would you, could you trust a race grown strong that feeds on living brains? No more is Alerion able to trust a race without bounds to its hope. Back to your own planets must you be cast, maychance back to your caves or your dust.”

Satan’s World (1969)

An interesting story of interstellar conflict. The protagonists are Nicholas van Rijn, some of his employees, and an interesting alien species who, though rather primitive in some ways,  had built a civilisation around massively automated technology. I particularly liked the alien taskforce of  twenty three warships which turns out to have only one live alien in the entire fleet (which is part of his personal possessions). The prize is interesting; a frozen planet, not bound to any star, which is going to be heated up by a near miss with a star and can then be used for massive industrialisation.

He did find that the nineteen destroyers or escort pursuers, or whatever you wanted to call them, were streamlined for descent into atmosphere:  but radically streamlined, thrice the length of his vessel without having appreciably more beam. They looked like stiffened conger eels.  The cruisers bore more resemblance to sharks, with gaunt finlike structures that must be instrument or control turrets. The battleship was basically a huge spheroid, but this was obscured by the steel towers, pill-boxes, derricks, and emplacements that covered her hull.

You might as well use naval words for yonder craft, even though none corresponded exactly to such classes in the League.  They bristled with guns, missile launchers, energy projectors. Literally, they bristled, Falkayn had never before encountered vessels so heavily armed.  With the machinery and magazines that that entailed …  where the devil was room left for a crew?

They were meant for aerodynamic work.  They had orders to catch and kill a certain vessel.  They were robots.

They did not have sophontic judgment, nor any data to let them estimate how appalling these totally unprecedented conditions were, nor any mandate to wait for further instructions if matters looked doubtful.  Besides, they observed a smaller and less powerful craft maneuvering in the air.

They entered at their top atmospheric speed.

Muddlehead had identified a hurricane and plotted its extent and course.  It was merely a hurricane — winds of two or three hundred kilometers per hour — a kind of back eddy or dead spot in the storm that drove across this continent with such might that half an ocean was carried before it.  No matter how thoroughly self-programmed, on the basis of how much patiently collected data, no vessel could hope to stay in the comparatively safe region long.

The destroyers blundered into the main blast.  It caught them as a November gale catches dead leaves in the northlands of Earth. Some it bounced playfully between cloud-floor and wind-roof, for whole minutes, before it cast them aside.  Some it peeled open, or broke apart with the meteoroidal chunks of solid matter it bore along, or drowned in the spume-filled air farther down. Most it tossed at once against mountainsides.  The pieces were strewn, blown away, buried, reduced in a few weeks to dust, mud, atoms locked into newly forming rock strata.  No trace of the nineteen warships would ever be found.


Destination Moon

28 Aug

The Greatest Adventure Awaiting Mankind!

It’s closer than you Think!

Be there! Be with the first men to ride a space-ship to the Moon! It’s a spine-tingling, perilous adventure!

See how the greatest news story of all time will actually happen! Share this adventure tomorrow!

Two years in the making, this is the picture you have heard about in LIFE, THIS WEEK, PARADE, the popular science magazines, New York Times and many more.

It’s a prophecy – not a fantasy! Watch for it at your favorite theatre!

Color by Technicolor



SEE the pull of gravity crush them deep into their crash-couches as the space-ship takes off at 32,000 feet a second.

SEE the flyers risk death as they crawl outside the space-ship to repair their short-wave arial – their only link with Earth.

SEE the slip that sends a crew member adrift in space – facing the doom of floating forever in the vast black universe.

SEE Man’s greatest thrill as he finally sets foot on the Moon! Now, at last, his age-old dream of conquering space comes true!

As advertised in September 1950

The Skylark Spaceships

5 Aug

Just under a hundred years ago (1915), Edward E Smith started writing what was arguably the archetypal “Space Opera” series. The four books “The Skylark of Space“, “Skylark Three“, “Skylark of Valeron“, and “Skylark DuQuesne” are classics – spaceships, deadly weapons, evil alien races (and plenty of friendly ones), and huge helpings of action. Some people find them the writing style a bit much, though the last of the books was published in 1966 so so it’s less dated. Personally, I love the whole series. The characters, the violence, the “engineerishness”, and especially the sheer scale of the stories. More than any series before, and very few since, Smith kept making things bigger in each story. The first book is about a small group of people from Earth, hurled into the depths of space in their tiny ship and trying to get back. By the second book, it’s time for inter-species war, alien alliances, and giant spaceships. Third book – more aliens, worse war, bigger ships. In the fourth book an entire GALAXY is destroyed.

There’s interesting things to be said about the characters (especially the arch-villian/hero Marc C. DuQuesne), and the alien races (who range from noble to evil with a side order of strange, and every one of which think the humans are weird), but I thought I’d illustrate the “bigger, more powerful” progression by just looking at the various spacecraft mentioned.

Note: I’ve converted measurements to metric as my dear wife commented that comparing “feet” to “miles” isn’t easy for someone who was born the year we went metric (back in the 1960s).

[Skylark of Space]


Our heros Richard Seaton and Martin Crane design a spacecraft around Seaton’s amazing discovery. The villainous World Steel Corporation sabotages it, while building their own ship from the plans. However Seaton and Crane secretly build the “Skylark of Space”, a bigger ship to go exploring with.

It was a spherical shell of hardened steel of great thickness, some forty feet in diameter. Its true shape was not readily apparent from inside, as it was divided into levels and compartments by decks and walls. In its center was a spherical structure of girders and beams. Inside this structure was a similar one which, on smooth but immensely strong universal bearings, was free to revolve in any direction.  This inner sphere was filled with machinery surrounding a shining copper cylinder

So that’s a sphere 12 m in diameter, containing 950 m3 of space.

“Old Crip”

While it was being built, Seaton and Crane went ahead with the construction of the original spaceship. Practically all of their time, however, was spent in perfecting the many essential things that were to go into the real Skylark. Thus they did not know that to the flawed members there were being attached faulty plates by imperfect welding. Nor could they have detected the poor workmanship by any ordinary inspection, for it was being done by a picked crew of experts — picked by Perkins. To make things even, Steel did not know that the many peculiar instruments installed by Seaton and Crane were not exactly what they should have been. In due course “The Cripple” — a name which Seaton soon shortened to “Old Crip” — was finished.

The Skylark is described as “four times bigger than Old Crip”. That can’t be four times the diameter (a 3m diameter spacecraft is too small and there’s reference to “our room” and “the galley”) so I’ll assume it’s four times less volume. That would make it a sphere 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter holding a measly 230 m3 of space.

“DuQuesne’s ship”

DuQuesne and Perkins (villain and henchman) take off in a Steel Corp’s copy of the original plans – i.e. the same size as “Old Crip”.  They kidnap Seaton’s fiance, Dorothy Vaneman, and head off into space, taking also a (beautiful) witness, Margaret Spencer, to be disposed of.

[Skylark Three]

“Fenachrone warship”

The Skylark (version two, same size but much better armoured) encounters a warship of the squat and monstrous Fenachrone, who are setting out to conquer the galaxy.

Yes, it is a space-ship, shaped like a dirigible airship … it must be a thousand feet long

Ok, that’s 305 m long (much bigger than the tiny Skylark), but what dimensions? Taking the “Hindenburg” as a typical dirigible airship, it was 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Applying the same ratio and approximating, we get a ship 50 m in diameter, holding about 700,000 m3 of volume.

“The Violet”

Meanwhile, DuQuesne and his new henchman Loring have stolen a warship from the planet Osnome.

“This ship must be seventy-five feet in diameter.”

“You and me both. But say, every ship’s got to have a name. This new one of ours is such a sweet, harmless, inoffensive little thing,  we’d better name her the Violet, hadn’t we?”

Another spherical ship, bigger than the Skylark at 23 m diameter (6,400 m3), but tiny compared to the Fenachrone cruiser.

“Skylark Three”

Seaton and Crane aren’t going to stand still when others are flying vast ships and trying to exterminate all competition. In short order they track down the Norlaminians, an ancient race of scientists who have been studying everything worth studying for thousands of years.  Though utterly pacifist, they are willing to build Seaton a real man’s ship.

For two miles that enormous mass of metal extended over the country-side, and while it was very narrow for its length, still its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed everything nearby.

The Skylark lay stretched out over two miles of country, exactly as they had last seen her, but now, instead of being water-white, the ten-thousand-foot cruiser of the void was one jointless, seamless structure of sparkling, transparent, purple inoson.

Taking the “2 miles” figure (10,000 feet is about 200m less), we get a ship that’s 3000 m long and 450 m in diameter. Plenty of space inside for all sorts of things, with 580,000,000 m3 of volume. Indeed, there’s enough space that the old Skylark Two is installed as a ship’s boat.

“Ravindau’s ship”

The Fenachrone home planet and their fleet are destroyed remotely, but Ravindau, a Fenachrone scientist, escapes with a colony ship he’s prepared in secret.

In a remote and desolate part of the planet, concealed in the depths of the towering jungle growth, a mammoth space-cruiser was receiving her complement of passengers.

No dimensions are given but it is described as smaller than the Skylark Three, which is thus able to store more tonnage of metal to feed into total conversion reactors, to power bigger weapons, to overwhelm the last of the Fenachrone.

[Skylark of Valeron]

The five crew of the Skylark Three (Seaton, Crane, their wives, and their cook) run into a group of disembodied intelligences (think Q from Star Trek TNG). The Skylark Three is destroyed, but they escape by rotating into another dimension in the old Skylark Two.

“DuQuesne’s ship”

DuQuesne is a consumate con-man, and fools the peaceful Norlaminians into using their automated factory system to build him a duplicate of the Skylark Three so that he can search for the missing Seaton. Not that he has any intention of doing so – not when Earth is just waiting to be conquered.

For before their  eyes there had already sprung into being an enormous structure of laced and latticed members of purple metal, stretching over two miles of level plain. While it was very narrow for its length, yet its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed into insignificance the many outlandish structures near by, and under their staring eyes the vessel continued to take form with unbelievable rapidity. Gigantic girders appeared in place as though by magic; skin after skin of thick, purple inoson was welded on; all without the touch of a hand, without the thought of a brain, without the application of any visible force.

“Skylark of Valeron”

Seaton and crew return from their (harrowing) adventures in another dimension, popping back into normal space in a far, far distant galaxy. Just finding their home world will be a challenge, but a bigger one is a planet full of chlorine breathing monsters who have enslaved a local world of humans. This calls for a seriously bigger ship!

Mart and I did some figuring and decided that with circles one thousand kilometers in diameter we could chart galaxies accurately enough to find the one we’re looking for … Therefore, we built the Skylark of Valeron just large enough to contain those thousand-kilometer circles.”

Gah! This is one HUGE ship, 1,000,000 m in diameter, a sphere containing 52,400,000,000,000,000,000 m3 of machinery, drives, and weapons – not to mention a cubic mile of computer.

“Sacner Carfon’s ship”

The Norlaminians realise they’ve made a big error by supplying DuQuesne with such a powerful spacecraft. They gather a crew of Seaton’s allies and supply them with a bigger ship

Fully twice the size of Skylark Three in every dimension she lay there, surcharged with power and might, awaiting only her commander’s touch to hurl herself away toward distant and inimical Earth.

A decent sized ship by any normal measure, at 6500 m long and 900 m in diameter (that’s 4,620,000,000 m3) but DuQuesne has fortified the planet and they have to retire ignominiously in defeat. Alas, his triumph is short lived once Seaton and his travelling planetoid turn up.

[Skylark DuQuesne]

There’s many twists and turns in the last book. DuQuesne allies himself with Seaton to tackle a greater danger … betrays him … allies with him … psychic powers are harnessed to build vast weapons … an entire galaxy of the Chlorine breathing aliens attack … and so on.


A crew of 800 genius scientists from a distant galaxy, secretly travel to Earth and build a giant ship on the Moon. They’re just there to take advantage of Earth’s background noise (as the planet gears up with the new technologies brought by Seaton and DuQuesne) so that they can return and fight their own revolution against their lizard-like overlords.

The Mallidaxian’s slimly powerful length now extended for a distance of two and one half miles from the mountain’s foot out into the level-floored crater

A moderate sized ship, at 4000 m long and (based on the Hindinburg again) say 670 m diameter. There’s plenty of room for laboratories and fancy staterooms when you have 1,600,000,000 m3 to play with. A chunk of it is taken up with an instantanious transporter which is useful for flipping hydrogen bombs into your opponent’s office.


Marc DuQuesne is not the sort of person who accepts someone else having a bigger ship. Something has to be done.

Nor was DuQuesne’s worldlet, which he named the DQ, very much like the Skylark of Valeron except in shape. It was bigger. Its skin was much thicker and much denser and  much more heavily armed.

No exact size or comparison is given, so I’ll just assume it’s twice as big (in volume) as the Skylark of Valeron. A chunky little craft of 1,260,000 m diameter, holding 1,050,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters of space.

So just how big are these ships?

  • Here’s a blue whale, humpback whale, a city bus,  and the space shuttle, along with the original “Skylark of Space“, “Old Crip” and the “Violet”  – all to the same scale. (Until I worked this out, I hadn’t realised quite how big the shuttle was … it does look smaller on TV!).

  • You need to increase the scale in order to see the next ship. Here’s the evil Fenachrone cruiser, sandwiched between two versions of the “Enterprise“, a jumbo-jet, and the “Yamoto“, the largest World War 2 warship. The entire diagram above is also shown at the same scale.

  • Then the ships start to get really big, and the scale has to increase again. Here is the “Skylark Three“, the “Mallidaxian“, and the un-named ship that Sacner Carfon et al fly into battle. For comparison, the U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon, the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and once again the previous diagram reduced to scale.

  • The moon-sized ships from the last two books are at a different scale altogether. The “Skylark of Valeron” is about the same size as the (largest) asteroid Ceres, or the distance between Auckland and Dunedin in New Zealand. DuQuesne’s ship the “DQ” is bigger still. The previous diagram is NOT included as the scale had to jump x500 and it would be 1.3 pixels wide!

Bridges / Control Rooms – The Good, The Bad, and The Overly-Familiar

22 Jul


Just for comparison, here’s a real (very modern) ship’s bridge – from the HSV 2 Swift, used by the US Navy.


Over time, the there seem to have been two major changes proceeding through fictional bridges; (1) they get prettier, and (2) they get more luxurious.

An early view of travel to the moon from 1919 (note the ship’s wheels!):

Early “Star Trek” Enterprise bridge:

Late “Star Trek” Enterprise brige – much more comfortable:

Blakes 7” – the Liberator had padded couches in the command centre, allowing crew to lounge around but rush to battle stations in seconds:

And controls don’t get much prettier than the “glowing in mid-air” of a Taelon shuttle from “Earth Final Conflict“:


There are reasons why some control rooms work well, and others don’t. As others have commented, the bridge of the Comsmostrator (from 1958’s “First Spachip on Venus“) reminds one of the that of the Enterprise (from 1966). A simple case of parallel evolution.

Indeed, I can recall when “Star Trek” first showed in New Zealand (around 1968), a local magazine published drawings of the bridge layout with a comment that it had been copied by an American hospital because it was so efficient. (Though I have no idea if that was really the case.)


Sometimes the reason why some of the control rooms look so similar, is that they ARE the same – or at least use the same recycled props. Here are two banks of computers that used parts of the AN/FSQ-7 computer. On the left is “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Season 4 (1967), while on the right is an episode of  “Flash Forward” from 2009 – that’s 42 years later!

These two images taken from the fascinating website which groups tv and movies by the (often wildly anachronistic) computers used in them. The list for the ubiquitous Burroughs B205 tape drives is also amusing.

The Start of the Space Race

18 Jul

Some early experiments, briefly described in a March 1930 article by Milton Fairman:

MAN’S valiant struggle to conquer his universe seems now on the eve of another epic victory. In preparation for the morrow’s conflict, two scientists are assembling their armaments. Their laboratories are 4,000 miles apart. An ocean lies between them, but their aspirations are the same – the conquest of space.

If this were not the age of the seemingly impossible, their hopes might seem absurd. This is, however, the century in which the thousands who scoffed at the Wrights and Marconi are soaring through the clouds while radio brings them news of the cities below.

Thus the plans of Prof. Robert H. Goddard, of Clark University, and the German scientist Herman Oberth are being received with higher regard than were the first pronouncements of Doctor Goddard some twenty years ago. The scientific world is becoming rocket-conscious. The poles have been covered, the skies saddled, the mountains penetrated by engineers, nature’s submarine secrets have been disclosed to the camera. Why not probe the interplanetary spaces?

The first steps already have been taken. Rockets have been developed with aerial exploration in view by both Doctor Oberth and Professor Goddard, and Fritz von Opel’s experiments with rocket cars and planes have met with gratifying success. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to talk of reaching the moon. Neither of the leading experimenters have any immediate hopes of doing so. But their preliminary tests have led them to make sanguine prophecies. Some day, the American asserts, man may send a rocket across those 221,614 miles to the moon. Before that, his German colleague believes, rockets may be speeding across the Atlantic bearing mail. Within four years, he asserts, there may be passenger rockets. The soundness of the efforts to send such projectiles to explore the space above us has been endorsed by the Smithsonian Institution, Clark University and the French Academy of Science.

The article used this wonderful image to convey its message:

Reaching for the Moon; Striking Photograph of Rocket Scene from German Film, “The Woman in the Moon,” an Unusually Interesting Story in View of Recent Attempts to Probe Higher Altitudes

Thinly sliced rocket fuel

28 Jun

This man is cutting solid rocket fuel into thin slices with what looks exactly like a meat slicer:

(Caption: Cold Cuts)

Solid rocket propellant is sliced by machine in much the same manner as bologna. A slice placed in a small rocket motor will get a five-pound rocket going 120 mph in seconds. The method is used by Lockheed Propulsion Co.

From May 1968 Popular Mechanics magazine.

The ancient and the modern

25 Jun

Here’s some surprisingly ancient machinery (1860s)  making a spacecraft – from April 1968 Popular Mechanics:

Space Age Antique

A massive turret lathe, built 40 years before the Wright Brothers flew the world’s first airplane, shapes ablative heat sheilds for Apollo space vehicles. It’s used by Space Systems Div. of Avco Corp.