With A Strange Device

Putting some steampunk junk in the trunk.

I’ve long been a fan of Jack Vance’s fiction for a number of reasons. One of these is the way he liked to throw quirky details into his stories. There were often no reason for these details as they weren’t designed to advance the plot (well okay, very occasionally yes they did but usually no they didn’t). Mostly Vance just liked to add a little local colour to the fictional landscapes his narrative was passing through. A little local colour, as actually exists in the real world, is something far too rare in science fiction of any era.

Of course it can be argued that unnecessary detail is, well, unnecessary, but I would counter by suggesting that any story which is set in more than a single room, building, or town is enhanced by diversity of environment. There’s a reason why the planets used as settings in the Star Wars movies are so mocked. One planet with an apparently homogeneous environment can be waved away but when they keep turning up it’s hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

Now most good science fiction is better than that but even so a lot of fictional settings do feel all too like different streets in the same suburb. If an author creates an interesting, alien world that’s good but what is even better if the can make the alien feel of it less homogeneous.

Oh but Doctor Strangemind I can feel you cry. I’ve already worked so hard on that alien environment to make it convincing, not to mention the plot and the themes and the characterisation and the hey hey hey!

Fear not my hard working friend I feel your pain and have the perfect answer. All you need do is slip on a bandit mask and steal some local colour. Now, before you get outraged by my lack of morals don’t worry, I’m, not suggesting you indulge in anything as sordid as plagiarism. No, what you want to do is not crib ideas from other authors but from real life. Trust me, it will work better than you expect. Remember China Miéville’s 2000 novel, Perdito Street Station, and the really cool city it was set in with all those varying locations? I’m will to bet that the entire city in that novel was was little more than a slightly retooled London (not the inhabitants though, but they’re a topic for a different day). Now if China Miéville can borrow an entire city to play with why can’t you?

Not that your local colour has to be an entire city you understand. For example in Jack Vance’s 1969 novel, The Dirdir, his protagonist visits an inn where where all the food has the same acrid flavour. When asked why this is so the waiter points to a large black insect scuttling across the floor and explains that these creatures have a terrible stench and get into everything so they are deliberately included in every meal since the food is going to taste of them anyway.

So let’s take as an example the steampunk genre given it has massive potential for local colour, both in the variety of potential invention and the way such devices might be used. With a little research it’s possible to unearth a whole range of failed inventions that could be inserted into a story as part of brief but interesting scenes. By the way these devices are used and by how the locals react to them the author can illustrate not only the alien nature of their world but delineate in what way it’s alien.

Strange Device 1
No, don’t ask me what purpose this device served. I doubt anybody but the inventor had a clue.

The later is a particularly undeveloped area in terms of fiction, possibly because this is also an area in which truth is more fantastic than fiction. Take for example that best loved example of steam generated transport, the railway engine. Right from the start travel by rail was extremely popular despite the opposition of the religious and medical fraternities. Bishops claimed that to travel at fifteen miles an hour was blasphemous and that the sacrilegious who used this new form of transport would die in terrible railway accidents as God showed his displeasure. Meanwhile doctors warned that such excessive speeds would pump all the air out of the carriages and asphyxiate the passengers or at the very least cause their internal organs to be put under such stress that internal injuries were a certainty.

Now while such dire warnings turned out to be hollow nobody could deny that in the beginning railways were indeed dangerous to travel on. The lines were not fenced off to prevent livestock or road traffic from wandering onto the rails. Even worse single tracks were the norm, communication between stations was minimal, and the efficiency of engine brakes inadequate so any unexpected delay or change to scheduled services was a recipe for collision as trains found themselves sharing these single tracks.

This was where US engineer R.K. Stern entered the picture. Stern was an electrical engineer who became interested in the possibilities of this new means of transport. Stern thought he had the answer to the vexed question of single track collisions. Stern should have stuck to electrical engineering.

What R.K. Stern did was build a train with s sloping front and rear. Track identical to that of the line the train was to travel on was then fitted on top from nose to tail. Head on collisions were thus impossible because one train would simply run over the top of the other, allowing both to go on their way without even needing to slow down.

Okay, before we go any further I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and just imagine what that would be like, two iron mountains belching steam, hurtle towards each other until one climbs on top of the other. Feel free to shudder if it helps.

Stern built prototype trains and some track for them to run on at New York’s Coney Island Pleasure Grounds in 1905. Apparently the trials were a success, but with the qualifiers that the trains travelled at no more than ten miles an hour and that everybody riding on them found the experience of the trains passing over each other terrifying. Not surprisingly there were no takers among the railroad companies for such a risky solution and the idea went no further.

However, what may be too terrifying to be experience in real life is perfect fiction fodder. Such trains could make a delightfully alarming appearance in a steampunk novel. Imagine having your protagonist board a train in order to cross the Great Salt Flat and then innocently ask why such an important means of transport is a single line? Pause for dramatic effect and then with a bone-shaking rattle comes the alarming answer. (And don’t tell me you’re so pure and good that you would never do something so humorously evil to one of your characters because I’m not going to believe you!)

Strange Device 2
Umm… Ocean mine? Giant Christmas decoration? I dunno…

But perhaps you would prefer a spot of local colour that’s a little more subtle? Fear not for I have you covered there too. Let’s talk about the mechanics of mechanical hat advertising. Back in the late nineteenth century the average entrepreneur was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of billboards and posters. It was widely suspected that the general public had stopped noticing such advertising, that it had evolved into an ever changing background of blurred shapes and colours for the average city dweller. In response to this concern the sandwich-board men appeared, lost souls wandering city streets with advertisements strapped to them fore and aft.

Not everybody saw the sandwich-board men as the right answer though. Some businessmen were worried that that these bulky walking advertisements were a nuisance on crowded city streets and created negative feeling towards the businesses they promoted. Only theatrical manager Sidney Squires and his engineering friend Edward Moorhen came up with a solution though.

They invented something called the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat. This was an extra tall top hat fitted with a hinged top. Inside the hat was a battery and a tube which ran down to a large rubber bulb which was held concealed by the wearer. When this bulb was squeezed vigorously the tube inflated, causing the lid to rise until it was at a right angle to the hat. This would cause the battery to light up whatever message had been attached to it.

In theory this was a clever idea, brightly lit slogans suddenly appearing at head height would be hard for the average pedestrian to ignore and this would be without the inconvenience of dodging around sandwich-boards. However in practise users complained that children couldn’t resist thrown stones at these hats and that the weight of them cause head and neck pains. This was enough to ensure the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat was never more than a passing fad.

However, like the previously discussed leap-frogging trains, such practical considerations need not concern the author of a steampunk novel. With a slightly more powerful battery the pneumatic hat would be an interesting addition to the police or other keepers of the peace. Imagine an officers searching for the protagonist by raising their hat lids to reveal battery-powered miniature search-lights. Or perhaps the protagonist discovers that spies/smugglers/revolutionaries are using signalling devices concealed in their hats to advance their wicked plans. Really, the possibilities are endless, such hats might even be included as local colour in the form of advertising devices as they were originally envisioned.

Strange Device 3
Eye in the sky? The mind boggles…

Okay, now I’ve covered transport and advertising the next obvious area to cover is facial hair. This is because in my experience the beard and the moustache are criminally underrepresented in steampunk fiction. Oh yes, facial hair often receives passing mention by an author, but that’s all the reader is offered, passing mention. This is a great pity as the nineteenth century, the era steampunk is naturally based upon, was a golden age for the follicle. For example, as I wrote about elsewhere, and in other circumstances, photographs of officers serving in the US Civil War demonstrate that conflict involved a wider range of military facial hair than any war before or since (authoritative corrections to this impression of mine happily accepted).

So naturally I want to conclude this article with a hair related invention. However, I’m not going to write about the moustache cup as it has been done to death. I think by this point we all know everything we want about the moustache cup so instead I’m going discuss the possibilities of the moustache hat.

In actual fact though while the source I discovered it in called this device a hat it was in reality a wire skullcap with appendages. The idea was that the cap would be placed upon the head before meals and one’s hair pulled up between the strands of wire. A quick brush and nobody would ever suspect you were wearing it. Then, when it came time to eat, the wearer would simply reach up and pull down from behind the ears two extendable strands of wire with clips on the end. These clips would then be fastened to a suitable point in the moustache, thus holding the soft and luxuriant hair of the moustache away from whatever was to be consumed. This, it was claimed, prevented any and all moustache related accidents at the dinner table. However, since all record of whoever it was that invented this device has been lost in the mists of time I’m inclined to suspect the moustache hat didn’t work nearly so well as they first thought. I suspect the inventor ended up preferring anonymity rather than the ignominy of having one’s name associated with a failed invention.

Failure or not I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much such a device would add to most steampunk novels. If nothing else describing one in use would be a slick way of giving facial hair the prominence it deserves. And now I think about it a female version might be possible, a wire extension being used to draw a curtain of hair in front of one eye to create an air of mystery. Ah, metal wires, the gift that keeps on giving.

As you can see from the three examples explored above a little research into past devices can add considerable individuality to the landscape of a novel if imaginatively applied.

Invention is after all the mother of fiction.

3 thoughts on “With A Strange Device”

  1. “Of course it can be argued that unnecessary detail is, well, unnecessary,”

    But appreciating “unnecessary things” is a large part of what makes us human:

    O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s


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