A Real Steampunk Car and Motorcycle

Steampunk is a form of Science Fiction which speculates on what the world would have been like if they’d managed to invent cars, computers, aircraft and space and time travel. It follows Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s novel, The Difference Engine, set in an alternative past where Charles Babbage’s pioneering computer, the difference engine of the title, has been built and Britain is ruled by Lord Byron. It’s heavily influenced by early SF writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. But some of the machines and inventions in the genre are very close to reality. In fact there was a history book published the other year with the title The Real Victorian Steampunk, or something like that. George Cayley in Britain invented a glider, while a Frenchman, Giffard, developed a dirigible airship in the 1850s and successfully demonstrated it by flying around the Eiffel Tower. And from the first years of the 19th century onwards, inventors were busy developing the first antecedents of the modern car and motorcycle, driven by steam, of course.

I found these two videos on Wildlyfunny’s channel on YouTube. They look like they’re from a steam rally somewhere in eastern Europe, though the blurbs for them doesn’t say where and I’m afraid I don’t recognise the language. This one below is of the 1886 Baffrey Steam Car.

Steam car Baffrey 1886 / Parní vůz Baffrey – YouTube

This second video looks like it’s from the same rally, and is of the 1869 Roper steam motorcycle, invented by Sylvester Howard Roper and demonstrated at fairs and circuses across the US. According to a couple of the commenters, Roper became the first motorcycle casualty when he was killed in a race against seven, ordinary human-powered bicycles.

The FIRST Steam Motorcycle in the world, ROPER 1869 year! – YouTube

The sheer inventiveness of the Victorians never ceases to amaze me, and you do wonder what would have happened had these machines taken off before the invention of the modern internal combustion engine. One of the reasons why they didn’t, and it was only until the invention of the modern petrol/ diesel driven automobile in the later 19th century that cars became an effective rival to horse-drawn transport, is because steam engines weren’t a sufficiently effective power source. It’s also why they were unable to develop steam-driven airplanes. Nevertheless, these machines are still awesome in their ingenuity and a fascinating episode in the history of the automobile.

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One Response to “A Real Steampunk Car and Motorcycle”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    Fascinating post and videos. Wells and Verne were the first writers to convincingly plot the future of space travel. Verne accurately predicts that the first moonshot will be launched from Florida, USA, will orbit the moon and splash down in the Pacific. The illustrations for the first edition of his novel show men in a rowing boat rescuing the astronauts from their capsule. However, he has his spaceship fired from a gun, which would probably have crushed the unfortunate astronauts. Wells is equally unsatisfactory about methods of propulsion. He invents a wonder substance called cavorite, which renders his spaceship opaque to gravity. Both writers predict weightlessness in space, both, ironically, for the wrong reasons. The real reason, as I understand it, is that the occupants of a spaceship are in a state of free fall. Verne has his astronauts becoming weightless in a zone between Earth and Moon where the gravity pulls of each body cancel each other out. It’s interesting how twentieth century SF writers took zero-gravity in space for granted without understanding the reasons. Keir Cross (The Angry Planet, 1950) equips his space travellers with magnetic boots. Frank Hampson (1951) equips Dan Dare’s spaceship with gravity motors, and talks vaguely of “gravity belts” extending from the planets.

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