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!

Steampunk Architecture – Redux

Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.

Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.

So, what is Steampunk Architecture?

Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?

Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.

So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.

Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.

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Charles Darwin Considers Dragons

I am happy to offer the electronic version of my latest book, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, at 50% off ($1.75) during Smashwords‘ July Summer/Winter promotion until the end of July.

This book is the latest Airship Flamel Adventure featuring Professor Nicodemus Flamel, the main character in this series.

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How could it be that cultures all over the world–who had no prior contact with each other–have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up the famous naturalist’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

Enjoy!

Mr. Darwin’s Dragon — Now available!

190218_Dragon bookmark art

I am very pleased to announce that my latest novel in the Airship Flamel Adventures Series, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, is now available on Amazon for paperback and Kindle formats and on Smashwords for most other ebook formats.  Here’s the synopsis:

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How is it that cultures all over the world have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up Darwin’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

The book will be launched next weekend at Clockwork Alchemy, the San Francisco Bay Area’s steampunk con.  But that’s not all.  I also have written one of the eleven short stories published in an anthology titled, Next Stop on the #13, put together with many of the talented authors that you’ll be able to  meet at Clockwork Alchemy.

next_stop_on_13_front_cover

If you’re interested in Steampunk and in the Bay Area next weekend (March 22-24), I wholeheartedly recommend you attend and take part in the shenanigans.  I’ll be in the Author’s Alley section of the Artist’s Bazaar.  Come by and say Hi!

Also, come by and see me at the two panels I’ll be presenting.  On Saturday at 2:00 pm, I’ll be giving a talk on Steampunk Architecture, and on Sunday at noon, I will be presenting “How to Research” along with the master of alternative history, Harry Turtledove.  (I expect to learn more from him than I teach myself.)

 

On-line Resources for Writers

On-line resources

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!).

Old House Idiosyncrasies #8–Sarah Winchester’s House

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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

Old House Idiosyncrasies #7–Ceiling Medallions

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.

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