Tag Archive for Rhazes

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Coal vs. Oil in a #Steampunk World

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits

Middle East Steampunk does not run on coal.

Coal-powered steampunk is something that I think (opinion here) would exist in Western countries where coal is more prevalent.  Granted, Persia at the time of our book would (and does) have massive coal reserves, but that isn’t the way the society and culture developed.  Not in “real life” and not in our book.  Thus, the camelids in Baba Ali do not run on coal, but oil.

Parts of the region where our novel takes place have always had easy access to crude oil/petroleum and the distillation of oil into other hydrocarbon compounds has been around since well before 9th century. In fact, the first streets of Baghdad were paved with tar.  Al-Rhazi, who first wrote about it, was something of an ancient polymath – physician, chemist, scholar, philosopher – and he wrote about this distillation process in his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets). Historical Alembics

This is done using an alembic.  If you look at the image at the right and think it looks like a distillation pot, you’d be right. Alembics are used today in distillation of some rather fancy cognacs and other perhaps less-legal alcohols *cough* moonshine *cough*.  Even the word Al-anbiq translates to “still,” as in “to distill.”

So what was Al-Rhazi making and what do our camelids run on?  Although it could be any number of distillated items, kerosene or a variant thereof would be most likely. In the book we use the generic term “oil” but I had to make sure that transportation and vehicles could operate using kerosene.  🙂 What followed was a merry chase on the Internet where I discovered:

  1. Early tractors used kerosene, as did the first Ford Model T and Model A,
  2. During World War II some cars were modified to run on kerosene (they couldn’t import the much more expensive gasoline),
  3. Several makes of motorboat use kerosene, and
  4. Jet engines use it as a fuel.

Kersene = rocket fuel?