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May 11, 2008
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Technostalgia: Celebrating Contingency

(EP is travelling.  The May 18 edition will appear 0900 EST Tuesday, May 20.) 

 

The film Iron Man sold more than $100 million worth of tickets in three days when it opened in US theaters last weekend, nearly an all-time record for a movie that’s not a sequel. As a result, a relatively little-known genre known as steampunk has finally begun to achieve some recognition in mass culture. A quarter-century after its beginnings as a literary phenomenon, having gradually seeped into Hollywood movies, popular music, fashion and design, steampunk was accorded status as a subculture by no less an authority than the Styles Section of The New York Times, thus joining a miscellany of other costumed social hobbies as various as grunge, goth, Martha Stewart and Civil War re-enactment.

 

In the film, Robert Downey Jr. plays a high-tech arms magnate who, while instructing US soldiers in Afghanistan in the use of weaponry he has devised, is taken prisoner by the Taliban. He uses spare parts from ruined weapons systems his captors have discarded to construct a flame-throwing rocket-powered robot suit in which to escape; and then to save the world from an arch-villain who inevitably has slowly emerged (as is required by the cinematic genre). The steampunk connection begins in the name:  iron is what there was, before the age of steel rendered it obsolete. In his desperation, the ingenious Downey hits on a set of technological possibilities that earlier decades had somewhow overlooked.

 

Imaginative steampunk, chiefly literature which proliferated in the late 1970s and 1980s, takes for its landscape a wide variety of technological styles that were swept aside by the rush to modernity that began in the nineteenth century:  steam power instead of electricity and internal combustion, brass instead of alloy steel, coal instead of petroleum, dirigibles instead of airplanes, telegraph and pneumatic tubes instead of radio and telephone, punch-cards and card catalogs instead of digital computers – a might-have-been world of technostalgia extrapolated from the known past.

 

The inarguable classic of the genre is The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  Readers who want to understand what counterfactual history can bring to the table are advised to read this wonderful book. The year is 1855.  The British and French Empires dominate the world through advanced technologies – dreadnoughts, airships and steam-powered mechanical computers, as invented by Charles Babbage. The Duke of Wellington has been assassinated, after a coup d’etat precipitated by the Luddite Rebellion, which still simmers menacingly twenty five years on. North America has been carved into pieces by civil war and imperial intervention: the USA, the CSA, the Republics of Texas and California and the Manhattan Commune. Japan is on the rise. Lord Byron hasn’t died in Greece; he and Babbage have rescued Ireland from famine and dominate the government of the Industrial Radical Party. The Great Stink, an environmental emergency, grips London for months on end. And real people – Benjamin Disraeli, Laurence Oliphant, Sam Houston – mix with secret agents in a world that might have been, but never was.

 

The plot turns on the search for a software program encoded in a deck of punch cards that are thought, perhaps, to solve the ultimate LaPlacian Equation, and so permit the great Engines of Central Statistics to anticipate all future events; but which turns out instead to convey an entirely different lesson. Rich stuff, more than enough to establish the appeal of steampunk as department of popular imagination.

 

But then why stop there?  An only slightly less charming book of the same title – The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer – is nonfiction. The first half of Doron Swade’s account describes Babbage’s failed attempts to build a “Difference Engine,” a machine capable of manipulating polynomials, a mathematical shortcut to precise numerical calculation – a 35-year adventure that began all at once in the summer of 1821, when Babbage, laboring with a friend to compile by hand an astronomical table, came across an error and exclaimed, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!”  It is an engineering saga with many twists and turns.

 

The second half of the book relates how Swade himself, as head of collections of the Science Museum in London, discovered Babbages’s blueprints, and many of the 8,000 or so dials, gears, sliders, spindles and handles required to build it, in the museum’s storeroom. It took him seventeen years to complete the project, but Swade succeeded in building Babbage’s Difference Engine in the London museum (he didn’t bother with the steam drive), and last month he delivered a five-ton replica of it in working order to the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif., where is will remain on display for a year. (After that, Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive who bought the copy, will take it home.)  Able to handle up to 31 digits accurately, possessed of its own remarkable mechanical typesetting component (a “printer” as such things are known today), powered by a hand crank instead of by stream, the Babbage Engine, along with slide-rules, cylindrical “pepper mills,” adding machines and other mechanical devices, is a monument to technological extinction.

 

The backward-looking steampunk subculture grew out of forward-looking cyberpunk literature that appeared at more or less the same time (co-author Gibson of The Difference Engine is the same man who a few years earlier wrote Neuromancer, a stalwart of the cyberpunk canon), and therein lies a clue to its significance. Both traditions emerged as the computer age dawned, and both accelerated just as personal computers made clear the extent of the triumph of numerical control. Steampunk is “a metaphoric coping device,” in the words of Ruth La Ferla, the reporter who wrote the Times story.  Robert Brown, lead singer for a goth band that repositioned itself as a steampunk ensemble, told her, “Satellite photos make the planet seem so small. Where is the adventure in that?”

 

So that ultimately what steampunk is about.  It is an adult counterpart to kids’ fascination with dinosaurs, an indirect way of acknowledging contingency, of thinking about winners and losers, of coming to terms with the idea of evolution itself.

 

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For those not into dress-up fads, the chief benefit of speculative fiction may be to invite attention to the way that that real technological history is made; to the work of historians such as Nathan Rosenberg and David Hounshell, for example, and the process they have identified as “technological convergence.”  It was in the mid-nineteenth century that an independent machine tool industry emerged, they say, especially in the United States, going beyond metal-cutting and metal-bending techniques that had been devised by small arms-manufacturers – jigs, fixtures, taps and gauges and die-forging techniques – to create milling machines and turret lathes that could be put to work for many different purposes.

As Hounshell describes it, “The makers of machine tools worked with manufacturers in various industries as they encountered and overcame production problems related to the cutting, boring, planning, and shaping of metal parts. As each problem was solved, new knowledge went back into the machine tool firms, which then could be used for solving problems in other industries.”

Machine tools created sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles and, eventually, automobiles. But they arrived on the scene too late to manufacture parts with which Babbage could build his Difference Machine, which required both economy and precision. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.  Digital computers would not emerge again for another hundred years.

 

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