Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

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

May 28, 2017

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.

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.

H.G. Wells’ Visionary Political SF Back in Print

January 7, 2017

Looking along the Science Fiction shelves in Waterstones in Bristol last week, I found a large selection of H.G. Wells’ books are now being republished. These include not only well-known favourites like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr Moreau, but also two of his explicitly political SF novels, When the Sleeper Wakes and A Modern Utopia. When the Sleeper Wakes is about a merchant banker or stockbroker, who falls asleep and wakes up centuries in the future to find that his activities have created a nightmare capitalist dystopia. A Modern Utopia is about a group of travellers from our world, who enter an alternative reality in which the Earth is ruled by a single world government, everyone speaks the same language and there is complete racial and sexual equality. On the negative side, it also shows Wells’ disdain for democracy, as political power is held by four ‘samurai’, unelected guardians with absolute power.

I haven’t bought them, and so don’t know what they’re like. However, it’s clear that they are vehicles for Wells’ socialist views, like his The Shape of Things to Come.

British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

January 1, 2017

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.


The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.

Florence on the Fabians and the Labour Right

August 15, 2016

Florence, one of the great commenters on this blog, posted this comment on the links between the Fabian Society and the Thatcherite entryists on the Labour right.

The Fabian Society is a small group, they say dedicated to networking, I call it as a closed shop for privilege, the white middle class, and the political dynasties. The Fabian Society has also been spotted hovering in the shadows with the Blairites, such as Benn and Kinnock, and especially those who seem to be trying to redefine feminism to their own liking, Jess Philips, Jo Cox, Tessa Jowell, Hariett Harman, to name but a few in Fabian Women’s section. They run a mentoring programme, and in their own words,

“The programme has already delivered some incredible results for its 125 participants and the Fabian Women’s Network. Mentees have been selected or shortlisted as Parliamentary candidates, as candidates for the London and Welsh Assembly with brilliant support from other mentees. Many others were shortlisted. 27 women have been elected into local government positions and a number of women have gone on to become school governors and trustees on the boards of charities. The majority has gained promotion, been nominated for awards and written or spoken in national media.”

Not bad for a society with only 6,000 members in total. A lot of influence for the few. Don’t get me wrong, women’s mentoring to prepare for public life is great, it’s just that an awful lot of the “parachuted” or more correctly imposed New Labour candidates into winnable Labour constituencies proves there is a link between THIS Fabian programme and the actual elected MPs, notably those who are very vocally anti- Corbyn and anti-Socialism. This also shows how far the webs reach between the PLP problems, and the disconnect with the actual membership and in the country. The graduates of the programme seem to know very little about the Labour movement or socialism, it’s aims and more about neo-liberalism as a “good thing”, and of course Corbyn as democracy as a “bad thing”.

The source of Fabian Society funding also bears some inspection, where there are a number of corporate donors and sponsors are powerful lobbyists for corporate interests, and not known for their support for socialist ideals- such as Barclays and Lloyds banks, Bellendon PA (political lobbyists) the Portman Group (lobbyists for the drinks trade), Sanofi – a large pharmaceutical, and so on.

This is depressing. The Fabians have always had a reputation for being ‘milk-and-water’ Socialists, but I used to have far more respect for them than I do today. I was briefly a member of the society back in the 1980s, when I felt I had to do something to stop the rampant privatisation under Maggie Thatcher. My great-grandfather had been a member, and I was impressed with the intellectual work they’d done. This was a time when there was still a variety of opinions in the Society. Indeed, one of the sources I’ve used for my blog posts and pamphlets against the privatisation of the NHS was a Fabian pamphlet by Robin Cook against it. It’s not just from Florence that I’ve heard about the Fabians forming part of the network of Blairite groups. A friend of mine also remarked on it, with the suggestion that if Corbyn wanted to destroy the Blairites, he could do much by simply expelling the Fabians.

It’s a profoundly depressing development for the organisation of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and, briefly, H.G. Wells. The Webbs did much to promote Socialism in Britain, and their report on the state of British healthcare laid some of the foundations for the development of the NHS decades later. It’s now become a mouthpiece for the corporate shills trying to privatise everything, and break up that greatest of British institutions.

H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man Back in Print

May 16, 2016

This probably may not be news to many of you. Looking along the politics section of the Bristol branch of Waterstones this afternoon, I found that Penguin have reissued H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man, which is his defence of human rights, written during the first two years of the Second World War. The blurb for it on Amazon states

H. G. Wells wrote The Rights of Man in 1940, partly in response to the ongoing war with Germany. The fearlessly progressive ideas he set out were instrumental in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU’s European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act.

When first published, this manifesto was an urgently topical reaction to a global miscarriage of justice. It was intended to stimulate debate and make a clear statement of mankind’s immutable responsibilities to itself. Seventy-five years have passed and once again we face a humanitarian crisis. In the UK our human rights are under threat in ways that they never have been before and overseas peoples are being displaced from their homelands in their millions. The international community must act decisively, cooperatively and fast. The Rights of Man is not an ‘entirely new book’ – but it is a book of topical importance and it has been published, now as before, in as short a time as possible, in order to react to the sudden and urgent need.

With a new introduction by award-winning novelist and human rights campaigner Ali Smith, Penguin reissues one of the most important humanitarian texts of the twentieth century in the hope that it will continue to stimulate debate and remind our leaders – and each other – of the essential priorities and responsibilities of mankind. See:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Looking at the Amazon entry, it appears it came out last year in 2015, so obviously I’m somewhat late in just noticing it. Or perhaps it’s only recently that it’s found its way onto the bookshop shelves. I didn’t buy it, but I’m mentioning it here in case there are people, who are interested. And the blurb is right: human rights in Britain are under attack, and the millions of displaced people around the globe have been left without homes through murderous and oppressive regimes, so it is, as the blurb says, still very relevant.

I also thought I’d mention the book because, as the Channel 4 skit Mike put up on his site pointed out, the team that drafted the European Convention on Human Rights included British lawyers. Traditional, historic British conceptions of what constitute our inalienable human rights are a fundamental part of the European Human Rights legislation Cameron, Osborne and IDS despise, and wish to replace with a much weaker British Bill of Rights. And they, like Bliar and Broon, are totalitarians, who wish to expand the secret state while doing everything they can to prevent public scrutiny of government and officialdom. They were trying to find ways to water down the Freedom of Information Act to prevent the release of information they may find awkward or embarrassing. In the view of the present Tory administration, information released under the Act is only to be used to understand how a particular official decision was made, not to challenge that decision. And they have done their best to protect the firms that have signed up to workfare by steadfastly refusing to release their names, in case public pressure forced them to withdraw from this highly exploitative scheme and it ceased to work.

This is a government hell-bent on taking our rights away, and reducing Britain to what Jeremy Corbyn has rightly described as ‘a zombie democracy’, a political sham, which retains some of the forms of democracy, but where they substance has long been hollowed out and removed. In this ominous political climate, it’s good that Wells book is being republished.

TYT on Trump’s Real Contempt and Exploitation of America’s Veterans

February 2, 2016

I’ve written two pieces already today attacking Trump. I thought I’d go for the hat trick. Trump was holding a special event four days ago on the 28th of January, specially for America’s veterans. Like the rest of the Republican party, Trump is enthusiastically pro-veteran. Or he is, so long as it suits him. Otherwise, he doesn’t want to know and is actively hostile to them. And his loud support for them really appears to be nothing but a very cynical fundraiser.

In this piece, Cenk Uygur talks about how, in 1991 and 2004, Trump tried to get the food stands run by wounded veterans cleared out of Wall Street or wherever it was in New York they were located. The stands have been there, by law, for over a hundred years. They were first allowed there to give wounded soldiers the opportunity to make a living. So they’re something of a grand old Noo Yawk tradition, and a small thing in themselves to give back to people, who have given limb, if not life, for their country.

But Trump couldn’t stand that. The food stalls lowered the tone of the area and threatened to put respectable businesspeople off. And so, while claiming that he fully supported the old troopers’ rights to make a living selling food, he wanted them moved from the area. This is all very much like Victorian England, where the respectable middle and upper classes really didn’t want to see their streets cluttered with proles, artisans, tradesmen and servants. There were designs for London with whole subterranean streets laid out, where the working and lower middle classes were to be sent to move and toil like the Morlocks from Wells’ The Time Machine, while their social superiors took the air in the boulevards above. Pittville in Cheltenham was laid out according to such notions of social snobbery by the bigoted and reactionary Francis Close. It was to be an exclusively middle and upper class suburb. The main streets, wide and spacious, were for the exclusive use of the respectable classes. Behind the houses was a warren of narrower streets for the tradesmen and others from the Great Unwashed, so they could come and go without being seen or heard.

While it seems that Trump has changed his attitude to America’s squaddies, if you look at the donation form it just appears to be a cynical scam to finance his election campaign. The online form for donating to his campaign for wounded soldiers goes to the Trump Foundation. It doesn’t go to the squaddies themselves, or their organisations.

This seems to encapsulate just about the cynically manipulative attitude to the damaged servicemen and women of the Republican party as a whole. Under George Dubya, the Republicans closed down whole programmes of state aid for soldiers with physical and mental injuries inflicted during their tours of duty. And they’re still doing it. I reblogged a list I found a few days ago of the various state aid programmes they’d forced to shut down. They’re all for US veterans, and ‘support the troops’ when it comes to getting people to vote for them, and start another war. But when it comes to the veterans themselves, they don’t want to know.

It reminds me of some lines from Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, about the contempt Britain had for its squaddies. Until they were called on to fight.

‘Well it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that,
And ‘throw him out, the brute’,
But it’s the thin red line of heroes
When the drums begin to beat.’

Or something like that. Either way, Trump and the Republicans have the same brutal cynicism towards America’s soldiers. They, and the public, who really care about their husbands, sons, wives and daughters in the military, should repay the compliment and turn their backs on him and them.

Steampunk Airplanes from the 19th Century

November 18, 2015

A few days ago I put up a post about 19th century attempts to produce steam-driven carriages and cars, which were very much like the kind of vehicles imagined by 20th century Cyberpunk writers. Cyberpunk is the type of science fiction, which takes as its starting point the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had had spacecraft, flying machines, cars and so on.

As well as inventing steam cars, carriages and buses, the century also saw a series of inventors put their minds towards flight. Balloons had been known about and used since they were invented in the 18th century. While some scientists and engineers, like Cugnot in France, attempted to create dirigible balloons – the ancestors of the Zeppelins and other airships of the 20th century, others tried to create heavier-than-air craft using wings, partly based on observing the way birds fly. These were the precursors and ancestors of the Wright brothers’ plane flown at Kittyhawk.

Such flying machines appear in the Science Fiction of the period. There are flying ships in Bulwer-Lytton’s early SF novel, The Coming Race. These frequently had fantastic designs, that would have been completely impossible to fly, such as the flying machine invented by one Mr Broughton in the short story, The Fate of the Firefly, by the Rev. J.M. Bacon. This is described as like

the skeleton of some antediluvian monster bird or flying fish. There were huge lateral wings, in texture like a bat’s, there was a pointed beak and a neck whose vertebrae were jointed pully blocks, but the body was too complex for comprehension, though it clearly contained an engine of some sort, with a tank which also did duty as a table. The story was accompanied by the following illustration of the ‘plane’.

Steampunk Aircraft 6

See Hilary and Dik Evans, Beyond the Gaslight: Science in Popular Fiction 1895-1905 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd 1976) 81-5 (pp. 81, 82).

Other, more serious attempts to create a flying machine, can be seen in the book Images of Aviation: A Century of Flight, by John W.R. Taylor (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 1999). This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to produce the airplane, as well as various early balloons. It also has a photo of a model of the glider invented by George Cayley in 1849, which successfully lifted a ten year old boy off the ground. This was succeeded in 1853 by a vehicle, which successfully carried one of Cayley’s servants. The vehicle crash landed, however, and although the man mercifully survived, he and Cayley were so shocked by the crash that Cayley turned his back on flight. He is, however, now recognised as one of the founders of the airplane and the science of aeronautics.

Steampunk Aircraft 1

Another British inventor, William Henson, produced a design in 1842 for an ‘aerial steam carriage’. Henson built the machine, but it failed to fly when it was tested in 1847. The steam carriage was launched from a ramp, but the small steam engine driving its two propellers lacked the power to keep it in the air. It is, nevertheless, a very good piece of engineering, as all the components are exactly where they should be in a working aircraft.

Steampunk Aircraft 2

After experimenting with clockwork models in the 1850s, the French naval officer, Felix du Temple, successfully launched a monoplane carrying a sailor in 1874. The device was powered by a steam engine, and took off from a ramp. It wasn’t very successful, staying aloft only for a few moments. Still, this was another important milestone on the way to powered flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 3

Twenty years later, the pioneering Russian aviator, Golubov, managed a flight of between 65 to 100 feet in monoplane – a plane with only one set of wings – designed by Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaisky. like du Temple’s plane, this was also launched from a ramp.

Steampunk Aircraft 4

Another French inventor, Clement Ader, made what French historians still claim was the first recognised flight in a powered airplane in the Eole. Powered by a 20 hp steam engine, this flew eight inches off the ground for 165 feet at Armainvilliers in October 1890. The flight was uncontrolled, however, and the design of the machine itself was basically impractical with its bizarre bat wings.

Sir Hiram Maxim also tried his hand at flight, creating an immense steam-powered biplane, which he attempted to fly at Baldwyn’s Park in Kent in 1894. This briefly cleared its guide rails before it hit a guard rail and crashed, after which Maxim called an end to his experiments in flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 5

The end of the 19th century saw further developments in flight from Otto Lilienthal in Germany, who constructed a series of man-carrying gliders, as well as other aviators in the very first years of the 20th century, such as Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their machines are much more like those of the Wright brothers, which came after them.

I find the Victorian machines interesting, however, as they show not only the immense imagination and invention of the engineers and scientists of the period, but they are so much like some of the machines of Cyberpunk SF that you really do wonder what they world would have been like, if they had been more successful and flight had been successfully invented fifty years or so before the Wright brothers.

Steampunk Visions: 19th Century Designs for Steam-Driven Carriages and Cars

November 15, 2015

One of the most fascinating SF subgenres is Steampunk. Based on the massive expansion of science and technology in the 19th century, and the early, pioneering works of Science Fiction that was inspired by these, and in particular the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Steampunk is based on what might have been, if the Victorians had developed aircraft, cars, tanks and spacecraft. One of the genre’s classic, founding works is Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Gibson and Sterling were two of the inventors of Cyberpunk, the type of SF centred around Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and computer hacking. The Difference Engine was set in an alternative 19th century, where Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built.

Today’s cars are powered by the internal combustion engine, fuelled by petrol and diesel. They were developed in the late 19th century, and really became the dominant form of road transport in the 20th. But as far back as the late 18th century European inventors were trying to develop road vehicles driven by steam engines. In 1771 the French inventor, Nicholas Cugnot, created a steam carriage intended to pull heavy cannon. It was unsuccessful, but during the 19th century a series of engineers and inventors continued to try and develop one that worked.

There’s a chapter on this part of the history of the age of steam in the book, 250 Years of Steam, by Allan Bloom (Tadworth: World’s Work Lt 1981), complete with contemporary illustrations of what they were intended to look like.

These include Richard Trevithick’s steam carriage of 1803.

Steam Carriage 1

This was unsuccessful. The frame became twisted during trials. The carriage section was sold off, and the engine re-used in a rolling-mill for hoop iron.

W.H. James’ design, which would travel at speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour, have 15-20 horsepower, and carry 18 passengers, six inside and twelve outside.

Steam Carriage 2

The machine developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, demonstrated on 12th August 1829, carrying the Duke of Wellington.

Steam Carriage

Walter Hancock’s machines, who built his first steam carriage in 1824. He wanted to use them to provide a passenger service in London. These had a crew of three – the driver on the steering wheel at the front, and engineer at the back, and a boy to stoke the engine.

Steam Carriage 3

There was also Rickett’s experimental steam carriage, which had its boiler behind the driver and passengers. It was so successful that the Earl of Caithness order a similar vehicle.

Steam Carriage 5

These first attempts to create steam-driven cars were unsuccessful. They couldn’t compete against the stage coaches and railways. The experimental nature of many of these machines made them dangerous. For example, the Glasgow Court of Session ruled that the steam carriages used by James Naismyth and John Scott Russell to run a passenger service between Glasgow and Paisley were unsafe and could not be used on the roads after the vehicle overturned crossing a covering of loose stones deliberately put there to block the route by the town’s Road Trustees. Bloom considers that what really made them uneconomical was the high costs of the tolls charged on the turnpike roads.

There was considerable public opposition to the vehicles as well, as Bloom’s book has a contemporary satirical drawing of what one 19th century cartoonist feared the roads would be like, if the new machine was taken up. Looked at now, it seems very much like Albert Robida’s ideas of what the 20th century would be like from his point of view in the 19th. Here’s the satirical depiction of steam-driven automobile mayhem.

Steam Carriage 4

In the 1880s, Amadee Bollee Senior, le Compte de Dion, constructed a series of successful steam cars in France. These look very much like the early cars of the period, using the internal combustion engine, and eventually de Dion switched over to using petrol and paraffin as fuels, rather than coke, before finally abandoning steam altogether and concentrating on the internal combustion engine.

Steam Car

Above: De Dion’s single-seater 1887 steam tricycle.

The book also covers the early 20th century steam cars, like the Stanley Steamer. These look very much like the motor cars of the period, as indeed does de Dion’s 1887 steam tricycle. The technology is obsolete, though Bloom suggests it may yet make a come-back. The invention and development of these engines in the 19th century, and the drawing made of them, do make you wonder what the world would have been like, had they taken off.

And they also show just how close to reality some parts of Steampunk are. It’s a pity they never actually got around to inventing space and time travel, however. That’s very much confined to fictions of Wells, Verne and their fellows.

And finally, here’s this footage from Youtube of a recreation of Cugnot’s steam carriage, displayed at the 2011 car exhibition in Dearborn, Michigan. Enjoy!

The Time Machines: Wells’ SF Warning about Tory Social Cleansing

November 1, 2015

Time Machine Cover

I’ve been reading H.G. Wells’ classic tale, The Time Machine, and was struck how the central message of the novel is now as acutely relevant as it was when the tale was originally published back in 1894. As you probably know, the story is about a scientist, who invents a time machine. Demonstrating it to his friends one evening, he travels 800,000 years into the future. There he finds human civilisation in ruins, and humanity itself has diverged into two separate species: the Eloi, who are beautiful, and live an indolent existence of contentment on the surface, and the Morlocks, a monstrous, subterranean race, tending the machines their ancestors had built underground. They provide the Eloi with their shoes and clothing. This is not out of altruism, or trade, but simply because the Morlocks are cannibals and the Eloi their food animals.

Wells had a degree in biology, and the Eloi and Morlocks were based on his ideas of the endpoints of human evolution according to current evolutionary theory at the time. The Eloi – short, nearly hairless, with little difference between the two genders, were inspired and informed by Victorian ideas of racial senescence. This forecast that over the millennia, humanity would lose much of its physical and mental powers, and the differences between the genders would dwindle, until humanity resembled something like them. Wells deliberately set his novel 800,000 years into the future as that was the time it was believed it would take for humanity to form separate evolutionary branches. The Eloi, as their name suggests, were the descendants of the human aristocracy. Freed from the need for labour, they lived in health and beauty, unchallenged by any dangers, until they atrophied and stagnated.

The Morlocks, on the other hand, were also short, but with hair down their backs. They had large eye and pale skin due to adaptation to their environment. They were also apelike, and Wells described them at one point as ‘like a human spider’. They were the descendants of the working class, who had been forced underground to work for their aristocratic and middle class masters. The brutal pressures of surviving in this environment had resulted in natural selection forcing them too to take on their degenerate, subhuman form.

Wells makes it very clear in his book that was extrapolating their evolution from current trends in his own time. He writes

‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed as clear as dayligh6t to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you – and wildly incredible! – and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilise underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilisation; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are noew electric railways, there are subways there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end – ! Even now, does not an East End worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the Earth?

‘Again, the exclusive tendency of the richer people – due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor – is already leading to the closing in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land. About London, for instance, perhaps half the prettier country is shut in against the intrusion. And this same widening gulf – which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich – will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.’

This is not such an incredible piece of forecasting, when you consider some of the plans made in the Victorian period for London’s built environment. About a year or so there was a series on BBC 4 on British architecture that never became a reality. In the Victorian period this included various tunnels under London designed for the working class, so that they should be kept out of the way and out of sight of their social superiors above ground. All you have to do is imagine what would have happened if these had been built, like the underground workers’ city in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, and suddenly Wells’ forecast seems not SF, but chillingly plausible.

The Time Machine has been filmed twice. The first was George Pal’s 1960 version, and then later by Wells’ great-grandson in the 1990s. In both versions, the origins of the Morlocks were changed. In the George Pal version the Morlocks are descended from those, who have retreated into the underground shelters to escape a nuclear war. In the 1997 version, the Morlocks are also descended from those, who have fled underground, but this time to escape the destruction caused by a mining accident that has broken up the Moon. Wells’ grandson stated he had changed it because the novel’s forecasts about social stratification was no longer relevant.

But it is relevant, now more than ever. Johnny Void in his blog has extensively covered issues of homelessness, social exclusion and the social cleansing of London, as local authorities clear the working and lower middle classes out of their homes in order to provide luxury housing for the rich. Readers of his blog will remember the ‘poor doors’ campaign against a block of flats in London, which had separate entrances for the poor and the rich the development was really aimed at.

This is exactly the process of social divergence Wells described, now returned despite the bland optimism and denials of previous decades. We’re just waiting for the invention of a time machine, so we can bring back a Morlock to eat Boris Johnson.