Nov 25, 2016


1816: Mary Godwin meets and alien visitor to Earth.
The Rossi Intervention
Last year I had a blog post called "125". That was a celebration of having made 125 posts to the wikifiction blog, with 2 months still remaining in that calendar year.

This year, I've reached 125 blog posts with one month remaining in 2016.

By The Numbers
During 2016 I have been looking back at several temporal landmarks of the past:

200. I blogged about Mary Shelly's Frankenstein from the perspective of 2016.

Magazine cover: "Advanceto the Future" by Sam Jackie
the Vance Era
100. During 2016, I've been celebrating the first 100 years of the Vance Era.

75. I looked back to 1941 and the origins of Isaac Asimov's positronic robot saga.

50. I celebrated the first 50 years of the Star Trek Era.

25. In anticipation of the 25th year since Asimov's death, I looked back at the science fiction writing career of Arkady Strugatsky, who died in 1991. 

Steam Men
Frank Reade Library 1.1
Continuing this year's efforts aimed at gazing into the past, let's get into our time machine and go back 125 years, to 1891... back into the murky origins of the science fiction genre and stories about artificial life.....

When I started this blog post, I already had one mention of the year 1891 in the wikifiction blog: a post that shows an image of Albert Einstein in 1891. In my thinking, Einstein is emblematic of the transition from the classical world into the Atomic Age. Here, I want to explore the period of transition between
by Denslow
1) fantasy mechanical men and beasts of the pre-atomic age
2) science fiction robots such as Asimov's positronic robots.

Tin Man
When I was a young boy, my mother was careful to protect me from the more disturbing parts of The Wizard of Oz. For many years, I was only allowed to watch first few minutes of that movie on T.V. before I was sent off to bed.

1939 film
The Tin Man was almost certainly my first introduction to a (bio)mechanical man. Even as a small child, I was unable to make sense of the depicted sensitivity of the Tin Man to rusting and his ability to generate steam. This kind of confusion marked the beginning of my inability to make sense of fantasy stories and my dismay at the folks in Hollywood for their willingness to do anything, no matter how unreasonable, to create a dramatic scene.

As far as I can tell, the Tin Man originally had no connection to steam. His origin was as a normal human being. To convert the man, Nick Chopper, into an artificial life form, body parts such as arms were cut off and replaced, one by one, with metal parts. The Tin Man fantasy seems to have been part of a long tradition of stories that explored the mysterious boundary between life and artificial life (see The Brazen Android, below).

However, in the 1800s there was another stream of fiction that did involve steam-powered mechanical men...

Reuben Hoggett has a website describing his research into the origins of "steam men". According to Hoggett's account, the origin of metalic steam men can be traced back to Zadoc P. Dederick, in New Jersey.

steam-powered engine and wagon
Dederick's steam man was a coal-powered three-horse power steam engine, dressed like a man in order to not scare skittish horses on the street. The original model (and the only one ever built) of this contraption apparently did not really work, but it inspired fictional accounts of "steam men".

Soon after Dederick's prototype steam man was described in published journalistic accounts, Edward Ellis published a story about a steam-powered engine in the shape of a man that could pull a wagon across the plains of the American West (see "The Huge Hunter; OR, The Steam Man of the Prairies"). Sadly, Ellis' poor steam man was destroyed in an explosion.

electric man (source)
Later, Harry Enton expanded on the idea, creating a series of stories about the Frank Reade family and their robot-like mechanisms powered by steam. Eventually, Electric Man was produced by Frank Reade Jr. as a successor to steam man.

125 years ago, steam-powered devices were becoming old-fashioned and being replaced by electric devices. A sub-genre of proto-science fiction adventure stories of the late 1800s that included as plot elements various "high-tech" devices became known as Edisonades.

In the 1880s, much popular interest in electric devices was generated by the work of Frank Sprague. In practical terms, street cars with electric motors that could draw electric power from wires provided the first practical application of electricity to transportation. It was left to story writers to depict fanciful self-powered electric devices.

Here, 125 years later, battery technology is finally catching up with the old electric device fantasies of the late 1800s.

"Philip Reade" is apparently an invented name, used by the author of a series of gizmo invention stories, the first of which were published in 1891. Among these gizmo stories was Tom Edison Jr's Electric Mule.

image source
Weird Westerns
These "Philip Reade" stories remind me of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wild, Wild West. I suspect that some people can never suspend disbelief and take science fiction seriously. For such folks, the best entertainment to be had from science fiction is to make fun of the genre.

Gino D'Achille cover art
I find many gizmo stories from the 1800s to be almost unreadable, but full of plot elements that seem to have inspired later science fiction authors such as Jack Vance. "Tom Edison Jr's Electric Mule" begins in the camp of some bandits who are led by Captain Karl (A.K.A. Karl the Cougar) who is eager to study the new 'Electric Mule' (named 'Snorter') that has gained renown as an "Injun-killin' invention", crafted by Captain Tom Edison, Jr.

art by Keith Thompson
Captain Karl is building a Steam Centipede and he wants to gain access some of Edison's technological secrets, so the bandits try to capture Snorter, without success.

By No Means
Captain Tom explains that the Electric Mule is battery powered. Apparently, when in need of an electric charge, "spontaneously generated" power is put into the Mule's power system by means of a set of "cranks" on the Mule's back. Thus, the Mule is apparently a perpetual motion machine!

After an epic battle between Mule and Centipede, both are destroyed by explosives. The evil Captain Karl is dead and Captain Tom survives and is expected to devise another fantastic invention.

Artificial Mind
Beyond the technical problem of power sources and the mechanics of robotic mobility, a true robot in the science fiction sense must also think and speak.

by Boris Vallejo
The Brazen Android by William Douglas O'Connor, 1891 (Part 2) is an old story that confronts the challenge of creating a device that can speak. O'Connor's story provides an example of pre-scientific tales that included the idea of some inanimate object (such as a statue) that becomes endowed with human-like cognitive abilities.

cover art by Geoff Taylor
This ancient idea (which can be traced back into ancient Greek and Egyptian writings) is of interest to me because in the Exode saga, there are very tiny agents of artificial intelligence (zeptites) that can inhabit both inanimate objects and living beings (either biologicals such as humans or artificial life forms such as robots or the sentient spaceship, Many Sails).

Bicentennial Man
"The Brazen Android" is proto-science fiction only in that it involves a proto-scientist, Roger Bacon. Sadly, written several decades after Frankenstein, O'Connor can add nothing new to the question of how a scientist might go about endowing inanimate matter with life-like behavior. O'Connor depicts a spirit being magically introduced into the brazen android, but sadly, this only results in the destruction of the carefully crafted object. True robot stories would have to await the development of the science fiction genre in the next century.

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