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.

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