Fantastic History #70: Into the Deep End by J. Kathleen Cheney

A few years back, I had a bright idea about writing just one more novella in my Golden City world. Just one more… I can manage that, right?

This would turn out to be Cristiano’s story. Who’s Cristiano? He appears briefly in the first Golden City book, when his half-brother’s half-brother comes to him for science advice. Cristiano’s a mechanical engineer, trained at the University of Coimbra alongside one of the first women to attend there: Emilia Atkinson, who studied Mathematics. Together he and Emilia become a powerhouse engineering team and, for the family boat works, build the Golden City’s first true submarine.

Out of some misguided sense of hubris, I thought I could carry this off. It’s not the historical aspect of Portugal that’s driving me batty, though; it’s the historical science.

At the time of the novella (1909), submarines had been around for some time. However, most of those could barely submerge, and then only for an hour or two. There had been some successes, though, one of which (THE ICTINEO, built by Narcis Monturiol) included the double-layered hull that I adopted for my boat. I borrowed the diesel-electric engine from its Nordic sources to keep my boat relatively cool (as compared to placing a steam engine inside a small metal body.)

But my real sticking point in this novella has been the mines.

Nautical mines were generally tethered to something on the sea floor. While different inventors (such as Samuel Colt) proposed variations on the idea, they weren’t successfully deployed until the 1850s, when the Russians heavily mined the Gulf of Finland during the Crimean War.

The tethered mine is a horrible threat, but less specific in its targeting. To target a specific ship, like I needed in my story, they have to be attached to a ship’s hull. Once builders realized they could do so with magnets, they had to come up with a way to delay the explosion so the person planting the mine could escape.

The initial solution to that amuses me greatly: Aniseed balls (candies).

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not a fan of anything licorice flavored, so this seems about the best use for the things. Essentially, the candy ball would be placed inside the mine’s trigger clamp. When exposed to seawater, it would start to dissolve. Once sufficient time had passed, the ball would disintegrate and the clamp would shut, completing the circuit and triggering the bomb.

I applaud the creators for their ingenuity, although the eventual uses of their devices would be terrifying.

However, looking at the general lack of sophistication of the planting and triggering aspects of the devices, there was no reason they couldn’t have come up with this concept a few decades earlier. After all, both magnets and nasty candies had been around for a long time in 1909.

So in the novella, I’m dealing with two different technologies. I have to figure out how the submarine can possibly do what I want it to do, and I have to figure out the mines. However, I quickly realized there was a third factor I didn’t even think of when I started this.

I didn’t know how to defuse the mines.

What I finally settled on is deperming the boats instead. By placing a steel cable around the hull of the boat and giving it an electrical charge, the polarity of the boat’s hull is temporarily changed and the mine pops off. Although this wasn’t in heavy use during WWI, it became common practice by WWII, when it was relabeled degaussing.

Fortunately for me, an Englishman came up with this idea way back in 1866. Evan Hopkins actually developed this for use in preserving the accuracy of a ship’s navigational compass—which can be thrown off by a large electrical charge like a lightning strike. Unfortunately for Mr. Hopkins, it never caught on. But he left it there so my engineers in 1909 could figure out how to adapt it at the last minute.

However, all this research into all things nautical (and magnetic, because my physics knowledge is wimpy at best) has made this story slow going. But sometimes when you bite off more than you can chew research-wise, it just takes time and patience to unravel the info you need. Anyone who’s done this kind of research will tell you that.

I’m hoping that the end result will be worth it. I’m finally approaching the culmination of this story, and I hope it will be worth it. I plan, as always, to do my best.

If you’d like to read how it’s gone so far, the first 12 chapters are free here.


J. KATHLEEN CHENEY taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). She is currently working on Book Five in this series (currently titled Princess, Empress, and Amazon, which are all fairy chess pieces)

Social Media Links:
Twitter: @jkcheney

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.