Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Steampunk/Steam Reality

Steampunk can be a lot of fun, but sometimes I think there's something missing -- steam reality. Sure, it's great to imagine all kinds of magnificent retro-future machines powered by the power source for all Victorian-era devices, the steam engine.

Attending a steam and gas show this summer caused me to rethink the genre a little. I'm not saying the realities of steam should invalidate steampunk, but I think by it might suggest new directions for the genre to explore. Here are a few things I noticed spending the day with over 100 different operating vintage steam engines that can sometimes get overlooked in fiction.

When that door's open, the temperature
jumps about 20 degrees.
Steam engines are hot
Steam is created by boiling water, so these engines -- whatever size --are hot. Even with insulation, steam engines (large or small) keep the air around them quite warm. And every time the firebox doors are opened to feed in fuel, there's a blast of hot air.

Steam engines are heavy
In order for steam to move pistons, it needs to be kept under pressure. And that means the chambers and pipes that contain it must be strong. So even the smallest steam engines (and I saw some the size of footstools) are constructed of thick metal and held together with massive nuts and bolts. Working steam engines of the past century could be very small, but they weren't light.

That dark spot on on the floor is a mixture of
water and grease.
Steam engines are messy
Escaping steam condenses back into water. Pistons, rods, and gears require lubrication to move freely and efficiently. The steam tractors I saw all left trails of water and grease behind them as they passed. And the stationary engines had pools of grease and and water around them.

Steam engines aren't necessarily mobile
The term "steam engine" tends to conjure up images of locomotives speeding down rails, but that was but one use for this technology. Stationary steam engines were the main power source for factories from the 1850's through the 1920's. The stationary engine would have a single (or sometimes double) wheel that was connected by a belt to a long bar that it kept turning. That bar ran the length of the factory floor.

Various smaller pieces of machinery could draw power from that bar through a belt drive. Some of them had gear shifts attached to vary the speed of the device as needed, and even to stop the machine completely. An entire assembly line of stampers, drill presses, crosscut saws and other mechanical devices could be run from one large stationary engine.

When this rolls by, you not only see it pass, but you can
feel the ground rumble, too.
Steam engines exude power
This is probably the most important point. Regardless of the size, a working steam engine has a commanding presence. It's almost a visceral expression of power that engages all the senses. You feel the heat, smell the grease, hear the hiss, and see as governors, valves, and pistons execute their intricate mechanical dance.

If you have a chance to see a vintage steam tractor or stationary steam engine in action, take it. At the very least, it helped me understand the Victorian fascination with steam.