With a web developer combining the old and the new with his invention of a tickertape that prints out Twitter feeds, Joe Curtis looks at the best fictional inventions from the scifi subgenre, steampunk.
Steampunk mixes Victoriana with technological advances we are still far off from achieving today, and the conflation of scientific prowess and the cultural conventions of Victorian England leads to some great creations from the leading authors in the subgenre.
After web developer Adam Vaughan’s ‘Twittertape’ turned steampunk fantasy into reality, here’s some steampunk inventions we wish were real.
1. Self-cleaning gloves (The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson)
In his remarkable novel The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson uses nanotechnology to imagine gloves that rid themselves of dirt – the perfect invention for those prissy Victorians.
"…with a quick brush, John and Gwendolyn were able to transfer most of the dirt onto their white gloves. From there it went straight into the air. Most gentlemen’s and ladies’ gloves nowadays were constructed of infinitesimal fabricules that knew how to eject dirt; you could thrust your gloved hand into mud, and it would be white a few seconds later."
2. Kink-spring powered airships (The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi)
Not strictly steampunk in the traditional sense, but Bacigalupi’s resource-depleted world shares a few things in common with the subgenre – not least of all a love of airships and spring power.
The vehicles in his novel are powered by the tension stored in a spring, measured in joules, which slowly unwinds to power the craft.
3. Chevaline (The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson)
Another Stephenson invention here, but a darn good one. His chevalines are robotic rides based on horses, which transport his characters from place to place. No member of the upper social stratas would dream of travelling without one in The Diamond Age.
4. Time machine (The Educated Ape, Robert Rankin)
High Street Kensington tube station, 1892
The humorist imagines a Victorian England which uses the Circle line by night as a Large Hadron Collider. Well, that’s what the Government thinks, anyway. In fact it is used to slow the speed of light down to a speed at which inventor Ernest Rutherford can make a spaceship outstrip it, and thus travel forwards or backwards through time.
5. The Analytical Engine (The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling)
The Science Museum’s finished version of Babbage’s proposed machine
In this classic of the subgenre, the two authors envision a past in which Charles Babbage actually got around to inventing his analytical engine. The general-purpose computer could – if built – have been described in modern terms as Turing-complete, thus predating the invention of the computer by about 100 years.
6. Sky cities (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift)
Cities in the sky are making a comeback since Swift’s 1726 classic.
Though first imagined by the author, they have since become synonymous with steampunk, featuring in Hayo Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and the third Bioshock game (which is also heavy on Victoriana).