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Ethersuits and Ethernauts

by Matthew J. Ruane

In late 1885, the Royal Navy was given control of all aerial flyers and etherships in Britain's service, due in part to the Army's bungled handling of these new types of vessels in both the War of the Parhooni Succession and in the Omdurman Campaign. On several occasions, aerial flyers were held in reserve by overly cautious commanders, which resulted in their being deployed only after the tide had already turned against the British forces. Over the next several months, the Navy implemented a plan first drawn up in 1880 by a study group of young officers (known as the Oak and Thistle Plan after the name of the pub where the plan was drawn up1). Published in The Army and Navy Review, it made apparent to all serving naval officers that lighter-than-air vessels would significantly effect the status and survival of the Royal Navy as the senior military branch. The plan called for a number of changes in the way the British Navy was organized. First priority was given to the establishment of a Royal Naval Aeronautical School to establish and implement basic training guidelines for those posted to this newly acquired branch of the armed forces. The Oak and Thistle Plan envisioned that the school would form the core around which a headquarters, training facility, repair yard, and experimental station would be organized.2 The Oak and Thistle Plan, however, also led to a five year debate over which branch, aerial or ether service, would emerge as the senior service.


When, in 1885, the newly created Royal Navy's Aeronautical Service (RNAS) school at Portsmouth was set up, it was laid out and organized almost exactly along the lines of the Oak and Thistle Plan. This was not surprising, as one of the officers who had authored the plan, Commander William Davenport, was named to head the school. He moved quickly to assemble a team of experienced instructors and to start construction of the services home facilities.

On 1 January 1886, the first class of the Royal Naval Aeronautical School began in makeshift classrooms with 120 ratings and twelve officers attending the new three month course. Though the school was established to train both aerial and etherflyer personnel, it soon became apparent that the prestige lay within etherflyer service. For many of the officers, service aboard an aerial flyer was perceived with the same disdain as service aboard a torpedo vessel or destroyer: lots of action and very little chance for promotion. Etherflyers, on the other hand, quickly became associated with the prestige of serving aboard a flag vessel, due in large part to the belief that promotion would come more quickly for those serving in the ether rather than in the atmospheres of either Earth or Mars.

In the wake of this minor uproar, two different courses were established in mid-1887 for officers, while a common course was maintained for the naval ratings. Today (in 1889), the enlisted personnel attending the school are normally bright lads directly out of basic training (although a few petty officers were trained here in the schools early years before the service began to promote from within). For naval ratings, the school has been considered advance preparation for aeronautical service, and is largely an extension of their earlier training in basic seamanship. Officers, on the other hand, normally come to the school with a number of years of prior service at sea. This prior service has two purposes. First, it gives the Navy a chance to determine if the officer candidate is a competent officer and seaman, as the aerial service is considered an elite branch where slackers and incompetents are not tolerated. Second, and more importantly, it ensures that the officer has been exposed to the larger tradition of the British Navy and thus will be less likely to agitate for the creation of a completely separate aerial service, a notion that several civilian pundits have already advanced.

Classes at the school are based on standard naval service courses, with instruction modified to take into account the effects of both ether and aerial travel. Two entirely new courses have been introduced: ethernautics, the theory and practice of ether propeller operations and repair for engineers assigned to ether vessels, and ethersuit operations, a course required of all personnel attending the school, including officers3. Officers destined to serve aboard ethercraft attend courses in ether navigation, while those destined for aerial flyer service take courses on aerial fleet and surface-aerial combined tactics. At the end of three months, personnel either are assigned to ether vessels currently in service, or returned to their previous jobs if the assigned vessel have not been completed.

Those who attended the schools first courses were quickly dubbed "ethernauts" by the press and "ethernuts" by those who perceived the entire venture as an extravagant waste of money and by those who feared travelling in the ether. Yet for the lucky naval personnel selected to attend the Royal Navy Aeronautical School, it was the very prospect of travelling in the ether which had compelled them to enlist or transfer. Gradually, the ethersuit operations courses came to symbolize the public's image of the RNAS. The appearance of an RNAS officer and a rating in an ethersuit on an 1888 Royal Navy recruitment poster soon became one of the most inspiring images for those wishing to travel through the ether and variations of this poster have been used ever since.


When the ethersuit operations course was established in 1886, the Royal Navy was faced with the problem of buying suits both for training and for active service. Though in 1886 no company was commercially producing ethersuits, there were more than a dozen experimental or limited production models from which to choose. One of the limited production models, the Davenport Ether Survival Suit, had been adopted by the Army for use on its ether vessels in 1878. The Davenport Suit, however, had numerous problems, not the least of which was the lack of an independent oxygen supply. It was rejected, along with all the other ethersuits currently available, as being unable to meet minimum naval specifications. Instead, the Naval Board called for a suit design which could withstand rigorous use, and had the ability to operate with an independent oxygen supply for a least one hour. The suit also had to be able to accept air lines or hoses for extended operations, as well as be able to resist puncture by knives. It seemed an impossible set of requirements.

Remarkably, the Naval Board chose a design introduced by Dr. William Davenport and Liam DeLacey, the designers of the rejected Davenport Suit. Working from their original design, and incorporating the Navy's new specifications, Davenport and DeLacey submitted the DeLacey Ethersuit for consideration. The suit was constructed of wax-sealed canvas and leather, with the joints reinforced by india rubber. The suit was constructed on three layers: an inner lining of silk, wire mesh and canvas, a layer of leather, and a layer of wax-sealed canvas. Though bulky, the suit's design prevented ballooning when in contact with the ether, as well as providing limited resistance to punctures. The suit's helmet was a modified diving helm, with enlarged viewports and connections for oxygen lines. The hands were protected by a glove made of leather, canvas and rubber, and the feet by metal diving boots which were magnetized.

Though movement was slow and tiring, the suit accomplished all of its requirements, including a independent oxygen supply. The oxygen supply, its exact nature still a military secret, was stored in a metal backpack, and was fitted with two hoses that attached to the helmet and provided air for thirty to forty-five minutes of operation. Though less than the hour limit required by the navy, the suit design was considered acceptable, and an order placed for 250. Each DeLacey Ethersuit costs the Navy twenty-five pounds sterling; they are unavailable to the public. However, an improved Davenport Ether Survival Suit, incorporating some of the features in the DeLacey suit, is available from William Davenport and Sons, Portsmouth, for twenty pounds sterling.

Ethersuit Operations

This new skill is based on the Agility attribute. Ethersuit Operations is used to conduct operations outside of etherflyers, or any other vessel capable of travel within the ether. The use of this skill allows the wearer of an ethersuit to avoid damaging their suit, or becoming entangled in oxygen lines, while travelling outside of an ether flyer. All Agility-based tasks are at a -1 modifier when wearing an ethersuit. (The modifier is -3 if the wearer is unskilled). Accomplished users (skill 4+) can automatically avoid any attribute penalties associated with wearing an ethersuit, while for others (skill 1+) it is a Moderate task check against Agility.

DeLacey Ethersuit

The DeLacey Ethersuit is the standard military ethersuit in the Royal Navy and RNAS, and it is described in the article above. However, some additional statistics are necessary. The ethersuit is the equivalent of one point armor, and has a thirty minute independent air supply (35 minutes, 40 minutes, and 45 minutes with a Difficult, Formidable, and Impossible Endurance check, respectively). See skill description for Agility modifiers. As with all ethersuits, wearers generally need assistance to get into the suit and the process takes about ten minutes. However, highly skilled naval personnel (skill 5+) can get into a suit by themselves in about fifteen minutes, or in five minutes if being assisted. The DeLacey Ethersuit is unavailable to the general public, though rumors have begun to circulate that several graduates of the RNAS have kept their ethersuits after leaving the service.

Davenport Ether Survival Suit

Similar to the DeLacey Ethersuit, the Davenport Suit is armored, but it does not have the independent oxygen supply. The suits wearer must be attached to the ship by oxygen umbilicals, which are generally fifty feet in length. Umbilicals limit movement but they do provide almost unlimited endurance. The Davenport Ether Survival Suit costs twenty pounds sterling, and is available only from William Davenport and Sons, Portsmouth.

Acquiring Ethersuit Operations Skill

Ethersuit operations skill can only be acquired by serving in the Royal Navy, or by being an inventor who has invented an ethersuit (they have a skill of 1 when using their own suit). As Ethernauts are the elite of the Naval service, Naval characters who choose the RNAS must have an Intelligence of at least 4. RNAS careers are given below:

Ordinary Seaman

Swimming 1, Gunnery 1 (choice), Mechanic (steam) 1, Ethersuit Operations 1, plus any three additional skills from the list on page 15 of Space: 1889.

Petty Officer

Swimming 1, Gunnery (choice) 1, Mechanics (steam) 1, Leadership 1, Ethersuit Operations 1, and any two additional skills; or Mechanic (ethernautics) 1 and any one additional skill.

Engineering Officer

Leadership 1, Science (physics) 1, Ethersuit Operations 1, Mechanic (ethernautics) 3.

Line Officer

Leadership 2, Close Combat 1, Piloting (ether flyer or aerial flyer) 2, Observation 1, Ethersuit Operations 1.

1. The name, first used by British Army officers who were critical of the plan and out to make fun of it, was soon adopted by the Navy faction who supported their services bid for control of aerial vessels. Today, Navy officers in the RNAS are known within the service as Oak and Thistle men, and crewmen on British Ether Dreadnoughts will often refer to going outside in a ethersuit as popping round for a pint.

2. The report made a number of other recommendations, such as requiring senior staff officers to devise methods to incorporate aerial vessels in combined fleet tactics, but their implementation is beyond the scope of this article. For some general ideas, see GDW's Ironclads and Etherflyers.

3. Ethernautics is the repair and operation of ether engines. It is considered a cascade skill of the Mechanic skill. Starting in 1887, engineers trained in ethernautics were given the right to wear a newly designed badge on their uniforms. This badge was dark blue with a black border, depicting a gold etherflyer overlaid with a black wrench and mallet.

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:49:01 EDT

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