Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?

On Friday I put up a post about the Science Fiction sub-genre of Steampunk, and some of the real Victorian inventions that have inspired it, and which even today seem like things from the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk takes its imagination from 19th century Science Fiction writers like Wells and Verne, and pioneering scientists, such as Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine. It imagines what might have happened, if the Victorians had developed space travel, time machines and a true information age. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depicted a Victorian Britain, which had indeed entered a steam-driven, mechanical computer age following the construction of Babbage’s machine in their 1990 book, The Difference Engine.

This week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 is going to be discussing Britain’s serious lack of engineers, and ask how more young people can be persuaded to take up the subject.

It’s a complex issue, but I suggested in my piece that one way might be to harness the interest in Victorian-style SF hardware that exists amongst the fans of the genre. I also noted that you could possibly combine this with an appeal to the petrolheads, whose hobbies are restoring and working on cars and motorbikes, by getting people interested in the real, steam-driven motor vehicles that were developed during the 19th century on the way to the invention of the modern car.

There are steampunk conventions in Britain, America and other parts of the world. The other year, Phil Jupitus presented a programme on it on Radio 4. The members of the genre wear Victorian-style clothes, weapons, and pseudo-scientific devices inspired by the esoteric technology of this age that never was. And some of them have made their own, steampunk road vehicles. This is a very brief clip of one such car I found on YouTube, which had been lovingly made by a fan of the genre.

The blurb about it on YouTube merely describes Steampunk as a genre, but doesn’t say anything about the car itself. But the metal semicircle arcing over the vehicle suggests that it was partly inspired by a real Victorian invention, the velocipede designed by Richard Hemmings of Connecticutt, in 1869 (below). Hemmings said that his five year old son could propel a similar machine of about 5 feet ‘at a good pace’.

From Jeremy Sumner, ‘How Pedal, Steam and Petrol Put Horse Power Off the Roads’, in John Mortimer, ed., The Engineer: Highlights of 120 Years (London: Morgan-Grampian Ltd 1976) 124.

Looking through this book, which is a glossy, commemorative edition of the magazine, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of technology, and carries a treasure-trove of inspiring ideas for enthusiasts of the genre. There are real life steam carriages and buses, a mid-Victorian mechanical traffic signals, an amphibious paddle steamer, a Zeppelin, and a petrol-driven tractor from 1916, which ran on caterpillar tracks. There are also designs for great towers in London to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, including one which would have been 1,240 feet tall. And instead of the Chunnel, Britain and France would have been linked by a truly colossal bridge.

I intend to post a piece about the book and its astounding and inspiring inventions later. I’ve no doubt that many of the people building vehicles and other gadgets based on their own interest in this particular genre, probably have an interest in science and engineering anyway. But the fact that people are trying to recreate and create science fictional Victorian cars and other machines shows that the steam punk genre does possess the power to inspire people with an interest in science and invention. Just as, no doubts, early generations were drawn to space and astronomy through the adventures of Dan Dare.

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2 Responses to “Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?”

  1. Florence Says:

    A friend of mine makes the most beautiful bespoke steam punk clothing at very reasonable prices considering the amount of hand tailoring involved. It is a movement that honours elegant engineering even in cloth. I have always been awestruck at the beauty of machines which is difficult to convey. My most favourite summer job as a student was admin in a company that still made steam locomotives and ships for export. I would spend my lunch break in the workshops talking to the engineers admiring their work, who said they had NEVER had an office worker let alone a young girl, come to look at their work. This was and still is a class-bound discrimination against the notion of manual work, grease and metal being lowly materials. Instead we should honour this heritage, and our engineering future, as steampunk does. We must make engineering a noble occupation for all.

    • Beastrabban Says:

      I can appreciate the immense hard work that must go into making such garments, Florence, through the sheer ornate design of Victorian-esque clothing.

      I can also understand your sense of beauty in machinery. Well-designed, well-engineered machines are beautiful, and some artists have tried to convey this in their work. Francis Picabia, one of the founders of modern art, painted a picture entitled ‘The Star Dancer’, which is of an engine powering an ocean liner.

      As for the other officer workers not wanting to see the steam engines and ships the company made, I know people, who would have loved a chance at that. But I guess it comes from the deep division in society between manual and intellectual labour. It ultimately goes back to the aristocratic origins of human society. The ruling class were not supposed to work with their hands, and indeed at various times and places they were laws stopping them from engaging in trade. You find it in ancient Greece, Egypt and China.

      But the heritage does need honouring, and should be a noble occupation for all, as you say.

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