Posts Tagged ‘Paddle Ships’

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.


Leonardo’s Rivals

September 22, 2013

One of the most interesting series on television was a documentary the BBC screened a little while ago about Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions. It mixed drama and explanation and opinion from a variety of historians and scholars to trace the life and scientific exploration and discoveries of one of the very greatest geniuses of the Renaissance. It was fascinating viewing, particularly when they tried out da Vinci’s design for a diving suit in the canals of Venice. Da Vinci was truly a polymath, responsible for a number of amazing inventions well before his time, such as the caterpillar track and helicopter. I don’t believe, however, that Leonardo was quite the isolated figure as is the common impression of him. There were other engineers at the time working on some of the same problems.

Jean Gimpel, in his The Medieval Machine, traces some of da Vinci’s ideas back to the thirteenth century French engineer and inventor, Villard de Honnecourt. This has been challenged, and other historians have science have rejected the suggestion that he influenced da Vinci. Nevertheless, it appears that de Honnecourt and da Vinci did work on some of the same problems, even if de Honnecourt never developed his ideas to the same extent that da Vinci did his. In the 14th century another, unknown engineer, began to consider an alternative method of propulsion for ships. There’s an illustration from a manuscript of 1436 of a paddle-ship, whose wheels are turned by the oxen on board.

Madieval Paddle Ship

During the fifteenth century a number of Italian engineers attempted to design something like the modern car. Around 1410, Giovanni da Fontana produced the design below for a ‘self-driving’ carriage, operated by hand.

Medieval Car

The car designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini was powered by four capstans, each serving one of the vehicle’s wheels. It even had a steering wheel. Di Giorgio Martini called his vehicle an automobile, which is probably the earliest use of the term to describe something like the modern car.

Medieval Automobile

Roberto Valturio, who died in 1484, designed a carriage that would be driven by the wind. Mounted on each side of the car’s frame were two windmills, each with four incline sails. These turned another, large will, which communicated the power to the two wheels underneath it.

Renaissance Sail Car

In Germany, Konrad Kyeser invented a double crane, while di Giorgio Martini created a device for lifting columns. De Kyeser also invented a diving suit. Two types of these suits are shown in one of his illustrations dating to 1400. One of the suits is from a design of the fourth century Roman scholar, Vegecius. This is simply a helmet and a leather tube, through which the diver breathed, leading to a floating bladder on the surface. This type of diving suit may have already been in use long before. In 1240 Roger Bacon stated that there were ‘instruments which men could use to walk on the bed of the sea or of rivers without endangering themselves’. The other diving suit drawn by Kyeser showed a helmet with two glass holes for the eyes, fixed to a tabard belted on the wearer. This is the first known representation of a body suit. In 1582 another German engineer, Peter Morice, or Moritz, installed a tide mill near London. This operated a force pump with enough power to supply the city of London.

Unfortunately, you rarely hear about these other, fascinating medieval and Renaissance inventions. Perhaps this may change with the increasing influence in Cyberpunk science fiction, which fantastically explores the scientific possibilities of the Victorian period. Possibly this type of SF may encourage others to look even further back in time, to the forgotten inventions and inventors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The role-playing game, Ars Magica is already set in the Middle Ages, and is based both on the world of medieval magic and their scientific worldview. Many of its players are historians of medieval science at universities. Perhaps in time knowledge of these inventions and achievements won’t be limited to the relatively small number of people, who play RPGs, and these engineers and inventors will at last receive the recognition they deserve from the wider public.


Great Inventions through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991.

Sigvard Strandh, Machines: An Illustrated History (Nordbok 1979).