The birth of steampunk in the 19th Century

Illustration for article titled The birth of steampunk in the 19th Century

The rise in steam power in the late 18th century led to the imagined possibility that humanity might finally be freed from dependence on muscle and wind as sources of energy. Novels of the near- and far-future, in which new forms of energy, including steam, would lead to new technology and new cultures, expressed this imagined possibility. As early as 1802, in Johannes Daniel Falk's Elektropolis, or The Sun City, electricity was seen as something which would power a utopian civilization. (In Elektropolis even the sun has been removed and replaced with an enormous "electrophor").


But more often steam was viewed as the energy which would transform humanity. The following is a list of 11 of the most interesting proto-steampunk stories and novels from the 19th century.

Photo of 1860s railroad via Shorpy.

1824: Russian author Faddei Bulgarin's Plausible Fantasies of a Journey in the 29th Century is a timeslip novel in which the narrator, boating on the Gulf of Finland, suffers an accident and wakes up in the year 2824. In this future climate change has warmed the Earth and humanity has multiplied to the point where most of the Earth's surface is taken up by humans and most animals are extinct. Underwater gardens feed the world, and numerous cities dot the ocean's floor. Siberia is a utopia, led by its capital, Hope City. Technology has evolved as well: air travel is made possible by steam-powered winged balloons, which travel on regular routes, and steam-powered automobiles travel across iron highways. Siberian scientists have sunk taps into the core of the Earth for heat and extract fuel from the atmosphere. And the culture of Hope City is enlivened by steam-powered machines which, when prompted, write poetry.

1827: Jane Webb's The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century is set in England and Egypt in the year 2127. The German scientist Dr. Entwurf proves that it is possible to reanimate the dead through galvanism by resurrecting the mummy of Pharoah Khufu, who flees from Egypt in Entwurf's rubber steam-dirigible. Khufu travels to England and begins manipulating various conspiracies, ultimately revealing that he's been sent by God to force the wicked into betraying themselves. The London of 2127 is largely steam-powered: steam houses move around the city on rails; the law is enforced by clockwork lawyers and steam judges; mail is delivered in cannonballs which are shot by steam-powered cannon; and the common form of travel is through steam-driven balloons. Electricity powers the rain-making equipment as well as Dr. Entwurf's resurrection machines.

Read it:
Volume I
Volume II

1840: The anonymously-written Anti-Humbug: Phrenology as Detector of Murder is a murder mystery set in the 40th century. The most powerful political figure of the 40th century is the Landgrave of von Epperstein, who is possessed of advanced technology. He has a giant condor whose intelligence has been boosted to human levels through galvanic plates in its brain. The condor can be summoned through a galvanic telegraph or through an infinitely-extensible acoustic tube. The Landgrave also has an enormous dirigible, which he uses to take flights to Mars and Venus. Other steam technology includes a steam razor, steam-powered locomotives which travel along railways connecting the earth, the moon, and Jupiter, and steam-powered robot gardeners and valets. But the marriage between the Landgrave and the Landgravine, Honoratissimatatremenda, is not a happy one. The Landgravine falls in love with Starzen, the handsome son of the ruler of Chimborazo province in Ecuador. The Landgravine uses hypnosis to put her husband to sleep, then murders him by driving a nail through his head. But Starzen uses phrenology to examine the Landgrave's skull, discovers the nail, leading to the Landgravine's arrest and conviction. (Her sentence: wearing men's clothing).

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1841: John R. Browne's The Great Steam-Duck or A Concise Description of a Most Useful and Extraordinary Invention for Aerial Navigation is a reaction to a proposal by Richard Oglesby, a soldier and politician, to build a heavier-than-air flying machine shaped like an eagle, powered by humans, and wound up with a crank. Browne, under the pseudonym of "the Louisville Literary Brass Band," proposes a steam-powered, duck-shaped, flap-winged aircraft. Sketches and lengthy descriptions of its operations are included.


1846: In French author Émile Souvestre's In the World As It Shall Be, Maurice and Marthe, a pair of newlyweds, are dreaming of a wonderful future when they are visited by M. John Progrès, a demon who rides flying time-traveling locomotive engine. Progrès offers to take the pair into the year 3000, and after his offer is accepted puts the newlyweds to sleep for 2000 years. When they awaken, they find that the future is not what they expected. Babies are raised in steam-powered crèches and fed "supra-lacto-gune" ("improved mother's milk"). Older children are raised under glass and taught by steam-powered machines. Steam-powered submarines prowl the seas, and meals are prepared by "steam-driven knives."

Read It:
In The World As It Shall Be

1865: Charles Bennett's The Surprising, Unheard of and Never-to-be-Surpassed Adventures of Young Munchausen is a collection of tall tales, similar to Erich Raspe's Baron Munchhausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785). In several of the stories Young Munchausen uses the Great Fire at the center of the Earth to power various steam inventions of his own design, including sewing machines, robot mules, robot servants, and self-propelled houses.


Read It:
The Surprising, Unheard of and Never-to-be-Surpassed Adventures of Young Munchausen

1878: In the anonymously-written Mr. Ghim's Dream a poor young idealist sells a series of wealthy financiers on a scheme to abolish poverty. They give him $100 million, and he builds the Toto, a steam-driven island full of houses and hotels (all provided with steam technology and heated with steam) which will be used to reduce and eventually abolish poverty.


Read It:
Mr. Ghim's Dream

1882: Novelist Anthony Trollope, in his futurist satire The Fixed Period, describes the Republic of Britannula, an island nation established by a group of breakaway New Zealand sheep farmers. Britannula (and its capital Gladstonopolis) is only a little more advanced than the U.K. of 1882, but Britannula does have a steam-powered cricket team (the superior to a visiting British squad), steam-powered cannon, and steam "curricles" (automobiles).


Read It:
The Fixed Period

1889: Charles Hooke's The Automatic Bridget describes what happens when a con man discovers a nearly-competed steam-powered housemaid, the long-promised "automtatic Bridget." The machine is shaped like a woman but with three legs and three arms and is programmed to sweep, do the washing, cuddle and change babies, knead dough, and other tasks a 19th century housemaid would perform. Unfortunately, the automatic Bridget is not complete, and when the con man has the android switched on, it goes mad, killing several people before destroying itself.


1896: D.L. Stump's From World to World describes the discovery of a "counterearth" on the opposite side of the sun. Counterearth is similar to Earth in many ways, but socialism is widespread, money has been abolished, and cities and culture are heavily planned and regimented. Steam technology is widespread: farms are cultivated with steam, land vehicles are powered with compressed air while aircraft are powered with steam. The national police force use steam to pacify violent criminals.

1901: Fergus Hume's The Mother of Emeralds describes the discovery of a still-flourishing Inca city in an enormous set of caverns beneath the Andes. Along with a big-headed Inca dwarf genius and talking Inca mummies, the novel has the Inca city, ruled by "Mama Ocllo," a femme fatale (along the lines of H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha). Ocllo is the last of the Inca royalty and has used the wealth of the Inca to make her city a techno-utopia, filled with steam- and electric-technology. Ocllo has also imported the best engineers and scientists of the Americas and Europe and has built up electric plants, munitions factories, and arsenals. Her ultimate goal is to invade and conquer Peru and establish a new Inca empire.


Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.



I can see the value in adding one (or more if you're daring) arms to an android maid, but what's the benefit of a three-legged humanoid, robotic maid?