Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The steam-powered man

I was reading A Study in Scarlet while I was sick.  I went back to re-read now that I'm not feverish and I wasn't just woozy, there is some fine melodrama and over-exuberant description in this (I love Victorian writing for that).  Here's a bit I enjoyed:

"Are you a doctor?" He turned his fierce dark eyes upon me as he asked this last question.
 "Yes; I am," I answered.
"Then put your hand here," he said, with a smile, motioning with his manacled wrists towards his chest.
 I did so; and became at once conscious of an extraordinary throbbing and commotion which was going on inside. The walls of his chest seemed to thrill and quiver as a frail building would do inside when some powerful engine was at work. In the silence of the room I could hear a dull humming and buzzing noise which proceeded from the same source.
 "Why," I cried, "you have an aortic aneurism!"
 "That's what they call it," he said, placidly. "I went to a Doctor last week about it, and he told me that it is bound to burst before many days passed. It has been getting worse for years. I got it from over-exposure and under-feeding among the Salt Lake Mountains."

Very vivid and dramatic, but I’m quite certain that’s not how aortic aneurysms work.  They would be so much easier to detect if you could just listen for the telltale humming and buzzing outside the patient's body.  A theory that makes more sense than 'aneurysm': the throbbing and quivering chest walls of the man who just confessed to murder give away what he really is: an early automaton, powered by a tiny steam engine.  He only pretends to tell all and then expire;  he'll escape in the night, his revenge accomplished, and slip back into the wilds of Nevada.

It's not so far-fetched.  Automata were a popular curiosity in the Victorian era; the word 'android' was rare but in use in the second half of the nineteenth century (it's in the 1879 OED and evidenced as early as 1863 in an American patent for a mechanical walking toy shaped like miniature human - which it also refers to as an automaton); there were contemporary stories about steam-powered automata in the American West even before A Study in Scarlet was written.

Edward S. Ellis published his story - which later became a novel - "The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies" in the dime magazine American Novels.  

In it, the teenage little person Johnny Brainerd invents a ten-foot tall steam-powered man; the concept basically is that he's a steam engine on legs instead of on tracks.  Brainerd harnesses the steam-powered man to a wagon and takes a party of men out west, where they search for gold, kill a lot of Native Americans, and make it back home safe and wealthy.

Cover of "The Steam Man of the Prairies" 1868 (Wiki)
It was the first of the Victorian and Edwardian 'Edisonade' sub- genre of proto-science fiction stories of brilliant inventors and their inventions, which appeared mostly as dime novels aimed at boys.  The term 'Edisonade' is modern, coined by John Clute and Peter Nicholls in their Encyclopedia of  Science Fiction and defined by them as follows:
As used here the term ‘edisonade' - derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that ‘Robinsonade' is derived from Robinson Crusoe - can be understood to describe any story which features a young US male inventor hero who uses his ingenuity to extricate himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from foreign oppressors. (Wiki)
He further clarifies the definition to include defense of nation:
It is an Edisonade, a paradigm kind of science fiction in which a brave young inventor creates a tool or a weapon (or both) that enables him to save the girl and his nation (America) and the world from some menace, whether it be foreigners or evil scientists or aliens; and gets the girl; and gets rich. (same source as previous).
In the case of  'The Steam Man of the Prairies,' Native Americans are the othered group seen as posing a threat to white America and set up as an obstacle in between the protagonist and his goals.

  The interest in fictional inventions was spurred by real ones, which were not as successful but no less fantastical.  In March of 1868, only five months before Ellis' story appeared, Zadoc P. Dederick and Isaac Grass, both of New Jersey, patented their steam carriage.  The pistons of the steam engine (or any other motor) propelled a complex system of levers which produced a walking motion in a humanoid robot, which pulled the carriage - as best I can make out. The patent seems to have been scanned and is quite garbled, but you can read it here.

Dederick's steam-powered man, photo from the patent (Wiki)
The original prototype cost $2000 (about $32,487 in modern US dollars); plans were made to construct it for only $300, but were abandoned.

It wasn't the last of its kind; Canadian George Moore invented another steam-powered man in 1893.  This time the prototype was a man of tin-plated iron sheet with an internal petrol-burning steam engine, legs operated by the pistons and a lever system; it walked in a circle at the end of a beam, attached at its waist.

Engravings show the mechanism clothed in a suit of armour, steam venting through a cigar between its lips and out its helmet.  

Prof. George Moore's 1893 steam man, from contemporary newspaper illustrations (source).

Moore exhibited his steam man around the United States; the engine was supposed to be able to turn at 3000 rpm, but while some reports claimed that the walking (very hot) tin man could not be held back by two men, others claimed that it could only manage half of one horsepower.  (In comparison, a basic gas-powered lawn mower with a 140cc engine manages three to four horsepower).  However, it seems to have been abandoned, as were Moore's plans for another iron man, which would be powerful enough to pull a wagon containing up to ten musicians in the streets.

It is not true that automata are a modern or a uniquely European or American phenomenon; they've existed for a very long time, in ancient Greece, the Abbasid Empire, ancient and early modern China, Renaissance Europe, and Edo period Japan, which traditions the Victorians drew on.  The Wikipedia entry, in this case, is quite good and cites plenty of useful sources.

Timeline of automata and related inventions in The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology

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