Monday Inspirations: Exploring Steampunk Technology, Part 2

Due to the untimely intervention of life, Monday Inspirations is a day late, but better late than never! Today, we continue on our journey through some of the more common technological elements of the steampunk world. In many ways, this is the semi-blind leading the blind; I’m brand-new to this genre, and this mini-series of posts doubles as much-needed research. The hope is that you’ll all learn something new (especially since it seems like I have quite a few friends curious to read more about steampunk), and that I’ll have a chance to build up my smarts and write a novel that will more or less fit the genre.

Rosie the Maid from the 1960s Cartoon, The Jetsons

This week, we’re going to take a look at robots and automatons. They are, of course, a familiar mainstay in popular culture. Even if you don’t read or watch science fiction, chance are you can name at least three or four robots from literature, film and television.  For me, the first ones that come to mind are Rosie, the mechanical maid from the 1960s cartoon, The Jetsons; R2-D2 and C-3PO from the Star Wars universe; and the super-scary Daleks from Doctor Who.

Robots are worthy of fascination and awe, for they represent one of the highest forms of human ingenuity, skill, and creativity. In many ways, they serve as a symbol of a world where technology has been harnessed to serve humans, where we can enjoy the fruits of our labor and intelligence, kick back, and enjoy greater leisure time because our mechanical maids and butlers are tackling the chores and other dirty jobs for us.

The "Steambud," designed for Toysrevil 'Steampunk Perspective' contest.

What could be better than the ability to create autonomous, intelligent beings through sheer know-how and a few well-placed mechanical bits, wires, and other such gadgetry? How many mundane tasks could we outsource if we had a fleet of automatons ready and willing to tackle them?

At the same time, robots evoke some of our deepest fears, for what happens if those autonomous machines take on a consciousness that rivals our own? Is it possible for mechanical creatures to attain a semblance of a human soul? And if so, would such an outcome break overarching codes of ethics and morality?

The possibility of such an outcome has inspired countless works of fiction and film, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the film Terminator and beyond.  Popular culture has simultaneously celebrated robots and warned us against them, giving life to the very real technological dilemmas that we face every day. We may not have robot servants clanking about our homes, but we do have countless automated devices in our lives, devices that have served to displace human workers and transform our relationship with the world around us, and with one another.

Because my interests are historical in nature, what leaped out at me during my research and reading is the fact that human conception of the robot stretches back far beyond the 19th century. According to Wikipedia, the idea of self-acting automata was well-established within the lore and mythology of various ancient cultures, including the Chinese, Greeks, and Hebrews.

Some of the earliest forms of automata were the water-powered clocks of the ancient world, which later gave way to the clockwork creations of the Medieval era. One of the most amazing inventors from the period is 12th century Arab al-Jazari, author of The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which featured designs for over 50 different mechanical creations. These devices included an automatic water-powered elephant clock and a programmable robot, credited as the first of its kind.

Medieval automata are surprisingly impressive, as we can see with this clockwork monk. The monk, as Elizabeth King writes, is “an early and very rare example of a self-acting automaton.” 400 years after its creation, it is housed in the US Smithsonian museum, and continues to function.

Clockwork mechanisms later gave way to more advanced forms of technology, like steam-power. The first literary example of such a creation can be seen in The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies, by Edward S. Ellis, credited as the first American ten-cent science fiction novel.  Written in 1868, the novel features a man powered by steam. Ellis describes him as follows:

It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the “stove-pipe hat,” which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was trade to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of baseball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from a human being.

The Huge Hunter proved to be so popular that three more books were later written featuring the machine’s successor, “Steam Man Mark II.”

Cover art for "The Steam Man of the Prairies"

And then there is “The Steam Arm Ballad,” a ballad from 1830s England, which Jess Nevins at io9 has termed “the first cyborg horror story.”  In it, a soldier who has lost his arm at the Battle of Waterloo replaces it with a mechanical limb that operates on steam-power; the arm, however, cannot help but do violence, and so the soldier wreaks havoc wherever he goes. The conclusion is bleak, for after assaulting his wife, killing multiple police officers, and ruining everything he touches, the soldier is forced to flee:

He left his house, at length, outright,
And wanders now just like a sprite;
For he can’t get sleep either day or night,
And his arm keeps moving with two-horse might.

Nevins notes that the ballad reflects 19th century fears of steam technology and its impact on society, which brings us back around to the dilemma that remains with us still: will robots, automatons, and their ilk help or hinder humans? Should we create them, or are we opening a pandora’s box of unforeseen horrors?

Such debates, I think, are crucial to explore in in a steampunk world, where the impact of technology upon the lives of the characters should be apparent. Over at Silver Goggles, Jaymee Goh asks a number of provocative questions along these lines, which I highly encourage everyone to check out.

As a writer, this is where I want to focus my attention. I’m inspired by authors like Neal Stephenson, who is incredible when it comes to tackling the social impact of technology in his novels. I’m in the midst of The Diamond Age, and what strikes me is how technology is utilized and viewed differently based on social and economic class. It’s not a shocking idea, but the way that he executes this makes for a fleshed out and fully-realized world. I’ll be talking more about Stephenson in future posts, as I think he provides a great example of how the concept of social difference can be used to build complex worlds regardless of genre.

So that’s what I’ve got, after a week’s worth of reading about robots and their history on the interwebz. There’s a lot out there, but I’ve provided a list below of a few of the articles and resources that I ran across.

Do you have any favorite (or feared) robots from popular culture? If you were going to construct a steampunk world of your own, what sort of automatons would you create? Would you prefer great clanking steam-men, or decorative devices, like these clockwork insects?

While you’re considering your answers, check out this trailer for the steampunk short film/television show pilot, The Mechanical Grave, which features an alternate world of robots, clockwork men, and Teddy Roosevelt as a police commissioner investigating a ritualistic murder which may or may not involve paranormal activity.

Further Reading and Resources:

The House of Automata, the UK’s only specialist automata company. Their website boasts many cool pictures, and some great video clips of automata in action.

Big Red Hair, for more information of Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man, and other steam-powered men of 19th and early 20th century literature.

Alex Knapp over at Forbes, with a longer discussion of clockwork robots.

Sophie Playle, blogger, writer, and editor, has recently completed a dissertation on the conflict between the mechanical and nature in the steampunk genre. Everything she writes is fascinating, but she’s written a few pieces on steampunk that might be of interest and use.

Gunalan Nadarajan’s paper, “Islamic Automation: A Reading of al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” which is an excellent discussion of al-Jazari’s contributions to the history of robotics.

7 comments

  1. Lauralynn Elliott says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard an explanation as to where the name steampunk came from. This was a very interesting and informative post!

    Let’s not forget another famous robot, the one in Lost In Space. I don’t even think it had a name, but I can remember it saying “Danger, Will Robinson!”. LOL (Am I showing my age by knowing this?)

  2. Sarah Pearson says:

    This was really interesting, I had no idea the concept of robots was so old! I think the creepiest Robots are those that imitate people. I’m thinking of the Buffybot for instance, or even Maria in Metropolis.

  3. Nadja Notariani says:

    I can offer – and I do it with a giggle – a reference to the ‘femme-bots’ of the Austin Powers movies.
    The only robotics that creep me out involve the meshing of human and android into one creature. Biometrics is something that young(er) people may welcome without a backward glance. I remain wary of ‘augmenting’ people in a way that becomes permanent – or that may change/inhibit a person’s natural thought process (although there are many drugs that already do this…). I see the value, in let’s say, a pacemaker. The device helps the living flesh to beat in regular time. But it doesn not affect the thought process – it merely corrects a faulty electrical connection. Where is the line I think shouldn’t be crossed? I’m sure I don’t know. But it is a subject that gives me serious pause.
    Okay…enough with the ‘deep-Nadja’. I’ll go back to the laughing, joking me now…lol.

  4. Crystal says:

    I may just give one of those authors you mentioned a read. I admit I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I really like the way it makes certain aspects of my life easier (online banking, online shopping, e-mail) but I hate the way it seems to make people so distant that they think a tweet or a text message is an acceptable substitute for a real conversation. I dunno – I guess time will tell!!

    As for robots… I really like C3PO! He’s so cute, him and R2. If I were writing a steampunk, I’d probably create something more decorative like the clockwork insects!

    • Lena Corazon says:

      Glad you found it interesting, Matt. And you’re right — Frankenstein’s monster isn’t really a robot, so that was a slip on my part. I think I was referring more to how he provides an early “cautionary tale” about human hubris, and our attempts to create synthetic life. Thanks for catching that! :D

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