31 July 2019


Simon Webb. The Real World of Victorian Steampunk. Pen and Sword Books, 2019.

When I first opened this book and read the list of illustrations I was fascinated by the titles, including an 1829 drawing of a proposed Vacuum Powered transport system between Britain and India! I was hooked. Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.
In the introduction Simon Webb relates that in 2018, “Sir Richard Branson proposed building passenger-carrying tubes to link London’s three airports and announced it would take three minutes to get from Heathrow to Gatwick” by this means travelling at a speed of 670mph. This was a scaled-down version of Elon Musk's scheme which proposed to build a tunnel stretching 200 miles from New York to Washington DC. This "Hyperloop" consisted of a vacuum tunnel assuring there was no air pressure to slow down the train. The press release described this scheme as being a futuristic and space-age innovation in travel for the twenty-first century.

Webb feels "there was something curiously familiar about these supposedly new ideas for high-speed travel". The illustration I mentioned before shows a satirical drawing of a "Hyperloop" labelled "Grand Vacuum Tube Company Direct to Bengal" that would carry passengers from Britain to present-day Bangladesh, a distance of 5,000 miles. This was in 1895.

But the vacuum tube system was not Victorian science fiction, as another illustration in this fascinating book shows a vacuum railway tube that actually operated in London’s Crystal Palace Park in 1867. It ran for 600 yards and the price for the journey was 6d (2½p in decimal currency).

The ‘pneumatic’ trains did not run through vacuum-tight tubes, but in the open air like normal railway trains, but with a cast-iron pipe between the rails. A piston in this pipe was attached to the front carriage of the train, a vacuum was created in the tube, sealed by a leather flap which ran the length of the line, and atmospheric pressure propelled the piston and train forward.

This method worked because it had steam engines placed at intervals along the track that produced and maintained the vacuum so there was no noise or smoke. The trains moved silently and incredibly fast. Isambard Kingsdom Brunel himself was impressed by the system, but the steam engines were inefficient over long distances, making the venture too costly; although Webb relates "that as early as 1847 trains, working on this principle, were running between the English towns of Exeter and Newton Abbot" taking 20 minutes to cover this distance and were faster than electric trains running on this route today.

One version of Steampunk literature creates alternative universes. Images from what may be called classic steampunk set in the nineteenth century are reminiscent of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. They are indistinguishable at times from those which actually date from that period. The author relates "the closer that a work resembles the world of Verne or Wells, the better and more authentic it is likely to be."

The term 'science fiction' itself dates only from the twentieth century, but the concept is much older than that. In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World, which has been described by some as the first science fiction story. Writers of steampunk today look back to the Victorian era and refashion it with anachronistic technology and styles of the time. Some nineteenth-century authors looked forward to a future filled with wonders which were not yet known. Both types of fiction are based on little known incidents and inventions of the real world.

In order to give the illusion that their fictitious novels were actual fact, authors created websites with doctored photos and false dates, but referencing real people, giving credibility to these fake stories. Webb states that "so far we see modern authors of steampunk cannibalising Victorian fiction to enhance their own fictitious work".

Essential to the Steampunk genre is the idea of steam-powered vehicles. The first regular passenger rail service by steam hauled trains using a cable system began running in 1830 between Canterbury and Whitstable. But the first steam engines to carry passengers in Britain were not on railways but along ordinary roads and the first horseless carriage was a steam-powered tractor for hauling artillery around battlefields invented by Frenchman Nicolas Joseph Cugnot in 1770. Another method of propulsion was the use of 'Pocock's Kites', and in 1826 a patent was granted for the “Charvolant” that used wind power to move these horseless vehicles at an average speed of 20mph.

Even the Internet was foreseen by the Victorians. The notion of sending complex information hundreds of miles by semaphore or an arrangement of shutters opening and closing accoutring to a carefully constructed code does not sound like a practical proposition, but 200 years ago a chain of semaphore tower did indeed straddle the continent of Europe. It was possible in the early nineteenth century to send a message swiftly from one end of Europe to the other by this means and a system ran from Amsterdam in the north to Venice in the south.

The first telegraph system was between Belleville Saint-Martin-du-Tertre on the outskirts of Paris in July 1793. A message was sent 20 miles away in only 10 minutes and was seen as a triumph for the French people. A British version was built by a clergyman for the British admiralty in 1795.
Did the Victorians have steam-powered aircraft, or is the appearance of heavier than air flight in the steampunk narratives set in the nineteenth century simply a pleasing anachronism? Webb concludes “We know at once that we are firmly and definitely in the realm of fantasy”, so all that can be said about this notion will be of a fictitious nature.

Webb cleverly by-passes this dilemma by discussing the merits of coal-fired aeroplanes, the association being that coal furnaces produced the steam needed to power the machines of the nineteenth century. In actual fact it was coal dust that was used as an energy source, and there is no proof, only rumours, that this energy source was utilised in the real world!

Webb mentions Clément Ader who built a steam-powered, bat-winged monoplane, named the Eole. Ader flew it on October 9, 1890, over a distance of 50 metres (160 ft). The engine was inadequate for sustained, controlled flight, but it did prove that powered heavier-than-air flight was possible. Ader made at least three further attempts for the French Ministry of War. There is controversy about whether or not he attained controlled flight, but he did not obtain funding for his project, and that points to its probable failure. So real Steampunk planes could fly in a straight line but were really with a tiny steam engine, and can only fly with the help of favourable strong winds.


The people of Chard in Somerset might contest Webb’s account, as they have their own local hero, John Stringfellow, who produced a steam-powered monoplane in 1848. Although this only flew for ten feet at its first attempt, a later version, helped by a guide-wire for take-off, flew freely for thirty yards (27m.) on a straight and level path. Stringfellow’s invention is commemorated by a sculpture of the device in the town's High Street.

In the chapter 'Steam Powered Computers and Mechanical Calculators' the author claims “there is nothing startlingly modern about digital computers”. I beg to disagree with this point of view! New micro-chip processors are at the cutting edge of technology and are startlingly modern. Mechanical calculators and Logogrammatic Tables were the pioneers of this new modern technology. Webb continues “Digital computers themselves, their central processors and memory” were all devised 200 years ago, and goes on to say that these devices of the nineteenth century were until very recently in some cases as fast or faster than modern computers, but he does not give any examples, and it is not clear how he could justify this statement.

It certainly does not apply to Babbage’s difference machine, a kind of giant mechanical forerunner of a computer, made with cogs and wheels, that never actually worked successfully. There are many theories and radical ideas based on the analytical difference machine, one being the use of punch cards or tapes to give instructions to the machine, a principle first developed in the Jacquard loom used for making lace, invented in 1804.

Although the author shows that nineteenth-century devices were the forerunner of many of today's modern equivalents, we must remember that all devices, inventions and theories are adapted, changed and added to over time. This is called progress. We all benefit from improvements in communication methods, all the way from beating drums to letters to telegraphs to emails and Skype calls.

I would also wish to note that the book is very well produced, with a carefully chosen typeface and clear page layout. Although I found it became rather repetitious toward the end, this is a very interesting book which is well worth a read for anyone of a Magonian inclination. – Gerrard Russell

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