Friday, April 19, 2013
“If this does not appeal to you sufficiently to recognize in me a discoverer of principles, do me, at least, the justice of calling me an "inventor of some beautiful pieces of electrical apparatus.” -- Nikola Tesla
If you're going to write steampunk-style urban fantasy, there must be gadgets in the story. The reason for this is not exclusive to the genre style; many of the books take place during the two primary eras of real-world industrial revolution: the late 17th and early 18th century (usually in Britain) or the late 18th to early 20th century (everywhere else).
In our world these were very interesting eras for industry. Advances in science forced the world's economy, which prior to the revolution was based largely on manual labor and agriculture, to rapidly change. Machines were invented to manufacture, transport and communicate for people. As men worked with these machines they continued to improve them, which is why the steam engine and the telegraph eventually were replaced by the eletric motor and the telephone. It may have taken a hundred years for us to go from traveling by steamboat to traveling by airplane, but compared to the progress made during all the previous eras of human civilization that's basically an eye blink.
Most of the people who lived during these eras loved gadgets as much as we do today. You have only to look at some of the old advertisements to see what was being marketed to appeal to them. I think even James Bond would approve of a watch that turns into a camera:
But I'm not sure he would want to wear this:
All Victorian-era gadgets weren't necessarily quackery or nonsense; some of them were quite serious:
Unfortunately they weren't all that safe, either -- Harry Cox, the manufacturer of this gadget, reportedly died of x-ray induced cancer.
Not everyone at the time was comfortable using or perhaps even aware of the advances in gadgetry, which prompted some warning labels like this one:
But I think for the most part people of the era embraced their gadgetry with enthusiasm. Science was no longer the heretical practice of madmen, and what it did to advance invention and industry forever altered the world, and paved the way for all the gadgetry we love.
While building the Toriana universe I invented plenty of my own gadgets, but I also drew inspiration from some that existed in the real world. For example, this apparatus might look familiar; it's an early version of the Teasmade, which eventually inspired my BrewsMaid. I also read through archives of real Victorian era American newspapers to see exactly what machines and gadgets were really in demand in central California, the geographical location that roughly corresponds to my setting of the city of Rumsen:
This was a good nudge for me to remember that in the 19th century California was not a long string of bustling metropolises; it was prime farming country. Working in parallel universe under the conditions of my world-building gave me a bit of leeway to speed up industrialization, but the research prompted me to include farms and various agricultural aspects to my setting, too.
Gadgets are fun to invent and write about, but simply throwing some zepplins, goggles and steam-powered widgets in your story doesn't instantly lend it realism. So do your homework: see what was really being used in your story era and let that serve as a guide as well as inspiration for your gadgetry. This will not only help you create unique technology for your world, but it will make it more plausible for your reader (like the electric girdle for men -- a version of which you'll be reading about in one of my future Disenchanted & Co. novels. As if I could resist using that . . . )
Related links: The DailyMail.co.uk has a marvelous article on a collection of weird and wonderful gadgets here.