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Ancestral Steampunk

By Daniel Hubbard | November 13, 2011

In the attic I have a small metal device that I inherited from my grandparents. It is a square box, open above and wider than it is tall. On top, there is a cage on hinged rods that run from the middle of the box to one side of the cage that allow the cage to be flipped over and placed back on the box. The cage opens with a hinge at one of its sides. When the toast in the cage is half done the cage must be flipped over to complete the toasting. I was fascinated with it as a child and my college roommates couldn’t believe that it still worked. Nothing is automatic. You have to pay attention when you make toast with it. It won’t toast both sides on its own and it won’t turn itself off. Today we’d call it a fire hazard. In its own day it was just technology pushed just a bit too far.

I’ve always been fascinated by technology. Real technology that made an impact is interesting but perhaps even more so are predictions of future technology and also those technologies of the past that should have, or could have, been left to the future.

Running for the Phone

When I moved to Sweden, I changed carriers from particle physics to telecommunications. Today, telecom is a world of iPhones, cell towers, computers and laser beams traveling down optical fibers. In its early days it was something quite different. I was not the first in my family to be in telecom. My grandmother had a brief career in it as well. About 1905 she was a telephone operator.

Before automatic switches came into use, a telephone operator was the key component in the switch. Somewhere, someone would turn the crank on their phone. A small magneto in the phone turned the cranking motion into an electrical current that traveled down the wires to the switchboard and lit a lamp or rang a bell to let the operator know that an incoming call needed to be connected. the operator would answer, ask where the call should be sent and physically make a connection between the two phones by inserting a plug into a jack.

My grandmother lived in a tiny town in the forests of northern Wisconsin. There was no dedicated building for the phone company. Her switchboard was in the back of a jewelry store. There were so few calls that an alarm was connected to the outside of the building. When it went off, she needed to rush over to the store and handle the call. It seems like one of these cases where the existing technology was pushed to an extreme that was quickly outdated.


There is a subgenre of science-fiction known as “steampunk.” It takes Victorian era technology and projects it forward, to do things it never got a chance to do because it was overtaken by advances that led us elsewhere. It describes the world as it might be if Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had been right about what the future would hold.

The more I think about it the more I think that though steampunk may be fiction, there are plenty of steampunk-style facts and artifacts waiting for us to find in our past. I think of my grandmother when she was about nineteen, hearing an alarm set off by electricity generated by a distant person’s arm movements and running down the street to pull a wire from one side of a board to another and then waiting until the conversation was over so that she could disconnect the wire. If not fully steampunk-ish, it certainly seems like a technology pushed just a bit beyond its limits.

There might be a bit of steampunk in your attic if you are lucky. My favorite is the Lake Breeze fan. It was sold in the early 1900s before electricity was a clear winner as a way to deliver energy to homes. It looks something like a fan that one might set up on a hot summer day to provide a cooling breeze and that is what it was. Except something looks wrong about it. It has no power cord. Instead it has a kerosene tank and a burner. This fan, meant to cool, was powered by the heat of an open flame. That, it seems to me, is steampunk.

I was going through a clients small collection of cylinder recordings. One was slightly cracked at one end and I noticed something I’d never actually seen before, a cylinder recording’s plaster core. One common type of recording surface tended to shrink, so, to keep it stable, it was supported by a plaster tube.

Civil War Steampunk

A "portable" battery system for a battlefield telegraph

Over the summer my oldest daughter and I went to see an exhibit about Civil War high tech. Wars are excellent times to look for technology strained beyond reasonable limits and the ancestors who might have encountered it. The Civil War was America’s great war of the Victorian Age, so what steampunk technology might it hold? As a former telecommunications person, I’d love to have a member of the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps in my ancestry. It is easy enough to imagine the the military seizing control of important telegraph lines and the subsequent need for maintaining them and, therefore, needing a telegraph corps. It is harder to imagine a man driving a mule with a coil of cable on its back through a battlefield while a crew ran behind trying to string the cable up into bushes or onto fences, all the while trying not to be shot. It also isn’t easy to imagine the batteries needed to power a telegraph in the field. They fit conveniently into a covered wagon. Suddenly the battery in my phone seems much lighter.

Thadeus Lowe, future head of the Union Army Balloon Corps was working on this balloon, designed to cross the Atlantic, when the war changed his plans.

Perhaps you have someone in your ancestry who dealt with some unusual craft of the Civil War. The ones I’m thinking of had names like Intrepid, Excelsior, Constitution and United States. There were others. They sound like warships. They were not. The men who occupied them were not sailors. They were aeronauts. Sometimes they flew their balloons free over battles, observing troop movements, trying to catch a wind blowing in the right direction and trying not to land behind the wrong sides lines. Often they flew tethered because a tether could hold a telegraph wire and they didn’t even need a mule to string it. Now, with a few helpful clicks of the telegraph key and some flag waving, for the first time artillery could attack targets the gunners had never seen.

Then there was the George Washington Park Custis. It wasn’t a balloon but it has a place in the history of military use of the air. It was a lowly coal barge until early in the war, gas generators were added and its upper level was cleared, turning it into a flight deck for a balloon. As a barge, it lacked even an engine and had to be pulled by a tug but it could still be an aircraft carrier. The C.S.S Hunley became the first submarine ever to sink an enemy warship. It was powered by seven men operating a hand crank. None of the Hunley’s crew survived the attack and few Confederate submariners were lucky enough to live through even a test voyage of one of the wars few submarines.

A Union Repeating Rifle with a standard firing rate of 120 rounds per minute.

I wonder what it was like to stand behind one of those Civil War machine guns turning the crank that powered it.  I wonder what it was like to stand there, upright, behind that big gun carriage, close enough to the enemy to fire upon them and, of course, close enough to be fired upon. I don’t wonder why there were so few Civil War machine gunners. I wonder how many of us have one of those few men in our ancestry.

The Strangeness of the Past

Of course, other times produced their hints of steampunk as well. The very first battlefield aerial recognizance was performed by the French army in the 1790s. The Austrians tried and failed to bomb Venice from the air in the 1840s. A German rocket plane from 1945 may have been faster than anything the allies had, but it was far from sane. In peacetime, Thadeus Lowe worked hard to develop a balloon and lifeboat system that could cross the Atlantic by air in the 1850s and cooling breezes might be powered by flaming kerosene.

The George Washington Park Custis, America's first aircraft carrier, c. 1862

The past might not always be stranger than fiction but it can be strange enough. Part of the fascination with the past, it seems to me, is how strange it can be—the odd experiments, the weird ideas and the technology pushed a step or two beyond what it could really do. I wonder what bits of real-life steampunk my ancestors encountered and what evidence we can find. I wonder what technological aspects of our lives will make our descendants shake their heads. Perhaps my grandchildren will read “siliconpunk” about what the future would have been like had we stuck with the computer chip.

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