This page is based on a talk I gave at the 2018 Clockwork Alchemy con entitled “On-Line Research for Steampunk Novels”. During the course of writing my novels, I’ve discovered a number of great on-line resources that I found extremely useful in researching the Victorian Era, its technology, society and history, and of course, its cockeyed offspring Steampunk.
This list should be helpful for writers of both historical fiction and fictional history as we all want to get the details right–except when we don’t. Because my steampunk novels revolve around Victorian Britain, this list is starting off biased in that direction–but there are plenty of other ways to write steampunk.
I’ll keep the link to this list at the top of the front page of the blog and I invite you to leave your favorite on-line resource in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list (with appropriate credit, of course!).
Winchester House, San Jose, California
Living in San Jose, California and being interested in all things Victorian, it would be impossible for me to ignore the largest Victorian house in the United States, the house built by Sarah Winchester. A recent article on the always interesting Atlas Obscura website which details some of the history of the Winchester House got me thinking about this architectural marvel.
The house, which is gaining some newfound notoriety because of the recently released movie, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, was Sarah Winchester’s home from 1884 until her death in 1922. She moved west from New Haven, Connecticut a few years after the death of her husband John, one of the owners of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. As her husband’s heir, she received a generous inheritance, as well as a major share of the company. She moved into a small farmhouse surrounded by orchards, and started adding on, building a home more suitable to her fortune and social standing. Continue reading
Ceiling medallions, those ornate plaster castings from which chandeliers seem to hang, are unique to vintage buildings. A recent Facebook post from a friend who is restoring his Victorian house about his gorgeously painted ceiling medallion ended with the question, “Do you know what the purpose of ceiling medallions were?” The general consensus, and the answer most commonly found on the Internet, is that they served to prevent the soot from candles and gas lamps from spreading out over the entire ceiling.
I had heard that story before and as I thought about it, realized that it seemed a bit off. After a bit of research, I think I can confidently say that there’s no evidence to support it. As described succinctly on the History Myths Debunked blog (which is a veritable cornucopia of such things), although widely distributed and often retold by historic house docents, this answer can be disproved by a little bit of research and moreover, if you think about it, makes no sense.
September 22, 1791 is the birthday of my favorite scientist, Michael Faraday.
Here is a portrait painted of him at age 51, looking much younger than he does in most of his later photographic portraits.
Portrait of Michael Faraday in 1841, painted by Thomas Phillips.
If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating man, see this blog post. A slightly more fictional Michael Faraday also features prominently in my latest steampunk adventure novel, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.”
Of late the dispatches from London have concerned a gigantic “fatberg” that has completely blocked one of the main sewer channels under Whitechapel. That the capital’s Victorian sewer system is just now reaching capacity is due to the foresight and engineering genius of Mr. Joseph Bazalgette who was given the mandate to update London’s sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s.
When calculating out the dimensions of the pipes, he considered the highest population density producing the most amount of sewage. Then he reportedly said, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen,” and doubled the diameter. It is estimated that Bazalgette’s prudence bought an extra 50 years of life to his brick-lined sewage channels, so that only now is London needing to upgrade its system.
A very informative article in Prospect Magazine investigates the genesis of the Fatberg in more detail.
In a blog post on Steampunk Architecture that I wrote almost three years ago (and which has consistently been one of my more popular posts), I included a picture of the Armour Steiner House in upstate New York which has the distinction of having an octagonal floor plan. Prompted by a post in the always interesting website Atlas Obscura, I looked around for more examples of these unusually shaped buildings. And it turns out there’s an interesting story behind them.
Armour-Stiner House, Irvington, New York. Source: JMReidy on panoramio.com
Portrait of Michael Faraday, by Thomas Phillips, 1842. If I were to guess, I’d say the apparatus on the left is a battery.
Michael Faraday, as I hope to convince you by the end of this blog post, was not only the most famous scientist of the Victorian Era, but quite possibly the scientist most responsible for the technological advances that have been achieved since. And considering his humble origins, possibly the least likely to have done so.
After reading the paragraph above, it should come as no surprise that Michael Faraday is my favorite scientist. As an electrochemist, my work owes much–no, everything!–to the discoveries that he made. And so, it was probably inevitable that Faraday would have a cameo appearance in my steampunk adventure novels. Little did I know when I started writing that he would end up being one of the main characters in the book that I just launched, The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday. While writing in the steampunk genre allows one to bend the truth a bit (as far as I know Faraday did not keep a secret lab notebook), I have endeavoured to depict Faraday for the most part truthfully. His life is sufficiently interesting that it needs little embellishment from me.