The rise of interest in steampunk has led to a number of previously obscure works becoming well-known. Though many people are familiar with Victorian tales of boy geniuses with steam-driven machines, there is a once-famous and now nearly forgotten poem that created the entire idea of boy geniuses in the first place.
Meet Darius Green, the boy whose adventures launched an idea that continues to the present day.
Some date the beginning of steampunk to Edward S. Ellis' dime novel SF tale, The Steam Man of the Prairies, or the Huge Hunter (1868). Whether or not The Steam Man of the Prairies is the first steampunk novel or merely an extremely influential and early work of steam science fiction, it is generally accepted that The Steam Man of the Prairies is the first "Edisonade."
As coined by critic John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), the Edisonade, "derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe," is a story about an American boy inventor "who uses his ingenuity to extricate himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption and his friends and nation from foreign oppression." The primary means by which the boy inventor does so is through the invention of a steam- or electricity-based vehicle, which he uses as transport and as a weapon.
The Edisonades flourished in the dime novels of the 1880s but faded in the 1890s and was eventually succeeded by adult inventor tales and by juvenile series inventors like Tom Swift. The Heroic Engineer of pulp science fiction, and his descendants in contemporary science fiction, are in a direct evolutionary line from the work of Jules Verne and from the Edisonade, and in that respect Edward S. Ellis can claim to be one of the inventors of steampunk.
But Ellis didn't work in a vacuum, and the idea of the boy inventor was not his creation. Thomas Bulfinch, in 1860, published The Boy Inventor : a Memoir of Matthew Edwards, Mathematical-instrument Maker, a biography about the youthful English inventor, but The Boy Inventor was strictly non-fiction. The Boy Inventor, which can be read here http://www.archive.org/details/boyinventormemoi00bulf was popular, but more influential on Ellis was John T. Trowbridge's "Darius Green and his Flying Machine."
"Darius Green" was first published in 1867 and was instantly popular, the 1867-1868 equivalent of a Top 10 hit. And like a Top 10 hit it would have been hard for Ellis to have avoided hearing or reading "Darius Green," whose central figure has many of the characteristics of the later Edisonade boy inventors, albeit without their success. Here is the poem.
If ever there lived a Yankee lad,
Wise or otherwise, good or bad,
Who, seeing the birds fly, wouldn't jump
With flapping arms from stake or stump.
Or, spreading the tail
Of his coat for a sail,
Take a soaring leap from post or rail,
And wonder why
He couldn't fly
And flap and flutter and wish and try —
If ever you knew a country dunce
Who didn't try that as often as once.
All I can say is, that's a sign
He never would do for a hero of mine.
An aspiring genius was D. Green;
The son of a farmer, — age fourteen.
His body was long and lank and lean, —
Just right for flying, as will be seen;
He had two eyes, each bright as a bean,
And a freckled nose that grew between,
A little awry, — for I must mention
That he had riveted his attention
upon his wonderful invention,
Twisting his tongue as he twisted the strings,
Working his face as he worked the wings.
And with every turn of gimlet and screw
Turning and screwing his mouth round too,
Till his nose seemed bent
To catch the scent,
Around some corner, of new-baked pies,
And his wrinkled cheeks and his squinting eyes
Grew puckered into a queer grimace,
That made him look very droll in the face,
And also very wise.
And wise he must have been to do more
Than ever a genius did before,
Excepting Daedalus of yore
And his son Icarus, who wore
Upon their backs
Those wings of wax
He had read about in the old almanacs.
Darius was clearly of the opinion
That the air was also man's dominion.
And that, with paddle or fin or pinion,
we soon or late
The azure as now we sail the sea.
The thing looks simple enough to me;
And if you doubt it,
Hear how Darius reasoned about it.
"The birds can fly,
An' why can't I?
Must we give in?"
Says he, with a grin,
"'T the Bluebird an' phoebe
Are smarter'n we be?"
Just fold our hands an' see the swaller
An' blackbird an' catbird beat us holler?
Does the leetle, chatterin', sassy wren,
No bigger'n my thumb, know more than men?
Jest show me that!
Er prove 't the bat
Has got more brains than's in my hat,
And I'll back down, an' not till then!"
He argued further: "Ner I can't see,
What's th'use o'wings to the bumblebee,
Fer to git a livin' with, more'n to me; —
Ain't my business
Important's his'n is?
Was a silly cuss, —
Him and his daddy Deadalus.
They might 'a' knowed that wings made o'wax
Wouldn't stan' sun-heat or hard whacks.
I'll make mine of luther
Er suthin' er other."
And he said to himself, as he tinkered and planned :
"But I ain't goin' to show my hand
To mummies that never could understand
The fust idea that's big and grand.
They'd 'a' laft an' made fun
O'creation itself afore 'twas done!"
So he kept his secret from all the rest,
Safely buttoned within his vest;
And in the loft above the shed
Himself he locks, with thimble and thread
And wax and hammer and buckles and screws,
And all such things as geniuses use; —
Two dead bats for patterns, curious fellows!
A charcoal-pot and a pair of bellows;
An old hoopskirt or two, as well as
Some wire and several old umbrellas;
A carriage cover for tail and wings;
A piece of harness; and straps and strings,
And a big strong box
In which he locks
These and a hundred other things.
His grinning brothers, Reuben and Burke
And Nathan and Jotham and Solomon, lurk,
Around the corner to see him work, —
Sitting cross-legged, like a Turk,
Drawing the waxed end through with a jerk,
And boring the holes with a comical quirk
Of his wise old head, and a knowing smirk.
But vainly they mounted each others backs
And poked through knot holes and pried through cracks;
With wood from the pile, and straw from the stacks
He plugged the knot holes and caulked the cracks;
And a bucket of water, which one would think
He had brought up into the loft to drink,
When he chanced to be dry,
Stood always nigh,
For Darius was sly!
And whenever at work he happened to spy
At chink or crevice a blinking eye,
He let a dipper of water fly.
"Take that! An' ef ever yet get a peep,
Guess ye'll ketch a weasel asleep!"
And he sings as he locks
His big strong box:
"The weasel's head is small an' trim,
An' he is leetle an' long an' slim,
An' quick of motion an' nimble of limb,
An ef yeou'll be
Advised by me
keep wide awake when ye're ketchin' him!"
So day after day
He stitched and tinkered and hammered away,
Till at last 'twas done, —
The greatest invention under the sun!
"An' now," says Darius, "hooray fer some fun!"
'Twas the fourth of July,
And the weather was dry,
And not a cloud was on all the sky,
Save a few light fleeces, which here and there,
Half mist, half air,
Like foam on the ocean went floating by;
Just as lovely a morning asever was seen
For a nice little trip in a flying machine.
Thought cunning Darius: "Now I sha'n't go
Along 'ith the fellers to see the show.
I'll say I've got sich a terrible cough!
An' then, when the other folks 'ave all gone off
I'll hev full swing
To try the thing,
An' practyse a leetle on the wing."
"Ain't goin' to the celebration?"
Says Brother Nate. "No; botheration!
I've got sich a cold — a toothache — I —
My gracious! — feel's though I should fly!"
Said Jotham, "Sho!
Guess ye better go." But Darius said, "NO!"
Shouldn't wonder 'f yeou might see me, though,
'Long 'bout noon, ef i get red
O'this jumpin', thumpin' pain 'n my head."
For all the while to himself he said:
"I'll tell ye what!
I'll fly a few times round the lot,
To see how't seems, then soon's I've got
The hang o'the thing, ez likely's not,
I'll astonish the nation,
And all creation
By flyin' over the celebration!
Over their heads I'll sail like an eagle;
I'll balance myself on my wings like a sea gull;
I'll dance on the chimbleys; I'll stan' on the steeple;
I'll flop up to winders an' scare the people!
I'll light on the libbe'ty pole, and crow;
An' I'll say to the gawpin' fools below,
'What world's this 'ere
That I've come near?'
Fer I'll make 'em think I'm a chap f'm the moon!
An' I'll try a race 'ith their ol' bulloon."
He crept from his bed;
And, seeing the others were gone, he said,
"I'm a-gittin' over the cold 'n my head."
And away he sped
To open the wonderful box in the shed.
His brothers had walked but a little way
when Jotham to Nathan chanced to say,
"What on airth's he up to, hey?
"Don'o,—the's suthin' er other to pay,
Er he wouldn't 'a' stayed to hum today."
Says Burke, "His toothach's all 'n his eye!
He never'd miss a Fo'th-o'-July
Ef he hedn't some machine to try."
Le's hurry back and hide in the barn
An' pay him fer tellin' us that yarn!"
"Agreed!" Through the orchard they all creep back,
Along by the fences, behind the stack,
And one by one, through a hole in the wall,
In under the dusty barn they crawl,
Dressed in their Sunday garments all;
And a very astonishing sight was that,
When each in his cobwebbed coat and hat
Came up through the floor like an ancient rat.
And there they hid;
And Reuben slid
The fastenings back, and the door undid.
"Keep dark!" said he,
"While I squint an' see what the' is to see."
As knights of old put on their mail, —
From head to foot
An iron suit,
Iron jacket and iron boot,
Iron breeches, and on the head
No hat, but an iron pot instead,
And under the chin the bail, —
I believe they called the thing a helm;
And the lid they carried they called a shield;
And, thus accoutered, they took the field,
Sallying forth to overwhelm
The dragons and pagans that plagued the realm; —
So this modern knight
Prepared for flight,
Put on his wings and strapped them tight;
Joined and jaunty, strong and light;
Buckled them fast to shoulder and hip, —
Ten feet they measured from tip to tip!
And a helm had he, but that he wore,
Not on his head like those of yore,
But more like the helm of a ship.
"Hush!" Reuben said,
"He's up in the shed!
He's opened the winder, — I see his head!
He stretches it out,
An' pokes it about,
Lookin' to see'f the coast is clear,
An' nobody near; —
Guess he don'o' who's hid in here!
He's riggin' a springboard over the sill!
Stop laffin', Solomon! Burke, keep still!
He's climbin' out now — of all the things!
What's he got on? I van, it's wings!
An' that t'other ting? I vum, it's a tail!
An' there he sets like a hawk on a rail!
Steppin' careful, he travels the length
Of his springboard, and teeters to try its strength.
Now he stretches his wings, like a monstrous bat;
Peeks over his shoulder, this way an' that,
Fer to see'f the' 's anyone passin' by;
But the' 's on'y a ca'f an' a goslin' nigh.
They turn up at him a wonderin' eye,
To see — the dragon! he's goin' to fly!
Away he goes! Jimminy! what a jump!
Flop — flop — an' plump
To the ground with a thump!
Flutt'rin an' flound'rin, all in a lump!"
As a demon is hurled by an angel's spear,
Heels over head, to his proper sphere —
Heels over head, and head over heels,
Dizzily down the abyss he wheels, —
So fell Darius. Upon his crown,
In the midst of the barnyard, he came down,
In a wonderful whirl of tangled strings,
Broken tail and broken wings,
Shooting stars, and various things!
Away with a bellow fled the calf,
And what was that? Did the gosling laugh?
'Tis a merry roar
From the old barn door,
And he hears the voice of Jotham crying,
"Say, D'rius! how de yeou like flying?"
Slowly, ruefully, where he lay,
Darius just turned and looked that way,
As he stanced his sorrowful nose with his cuff.
"Wall, I like flyin' well enough,"
He said; "but the' ain't sich a thunderin' sight
O' fun in't when ye come to light."
I just have room for the moral here;
And this is the moral: Stick to your sphere.
Or if you insist, as you have the right,
On spreading your wings for a loftier flight,
The moral is, Take care how you light.