Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Time’s up for “curfew”

As I write, I’ve got 40 minutes to get inside before I could potentially be arrested. San Jose, California has a covid-related curfew that makes it unlawful to be out between the hours of 10pm and 5am. I’m not sure how strictly the curfew is being obeyed, not to mention enforced. It was the latest increasingly strict measure required by people not obeying the previous measure.

When I was growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, it was well-understood by all us kids that the time to come in the house for the evening was when the streetlights turned on. The lights were controlled by a photocell, so we all got longer after-dinner play times during the summer. It was a simple system based on an indirect measure of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and it worked. Pleas for longer time were rarely granted.

Being a writer, I ponder the origins of interesting words that I encounter. Recently, I came across a picture of a brass fireplace implement called a “curfew” and wondered how it related to the modern meaning.

The curfew was a metal or terra cotta dome that was placed over the remains of the coals in the hearth or stove to prevent the fire from spreading while also preventing the coals from being extinguished. (“Curfew” stems from the French “couvre-feu”, to cover the fire.) It was a fine line between the disaster of a house fire and the hassle of re-kindling a cold fire in the morning. A bell would toll announcing the curfew—-the time to cover up the hearth fire for the night. The practice is ancient and predates the Norman Invasion in England.

Examples of Curfews

Of course, now the curfew is meant to get everyone out of the bars and in their home to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Let’s hope that don’t need either type of curfew for very much longer in the future.