Airships. Steam powered trains. Carriages drawn by mechanical horses, or self-propelled. When most people think of steampunk, these types of images frequently come to mind. Often these images are accompanied by automatons running amok, strange contraptions that bare little, if any resemblance to devices that currently exist, filled with cogs, gears and springs.
When it comes to the technology of a steam punk reality, the expectation seems to be big and impressive. But perhaps in a reality where the steam engine never gave way to the modern internal combustion engine, there is still a chance of a similar technological revolution. Perhaps in a world of steampunk, the world would be forever changed by a single device. A device that could take complex data and simplify it, translating it into information that the common man could use. We have the computer; our steampunk counterparts might have The Difference Engine.
For one of my current WIP I have been in research mode, as I want to make sure that my understanding of the technology and its basic history are accurate up to the point at which the story differs from reality. The device at the heart of my current research is the Difference Engine.
In reality, The Difference Engine was basically a rather sophisticated 19th century calculator. Had Charles Babbage actually succeeded in creating a functioning Difference Engine, the computer age could have started much earlier. Although a working Difference Engine was never successfully built completely in his time, Babbage and his contemporaries were able to envision a future where this device could perform calculations, represent more abstract things such as language, and even perform music. All of these things and more are possible with the modern computer.
One thing that I have noticed in most alternate history works is that if the Difference Engine is referenced, it seems to be treated as something more magical than scientific. And while I enjoy a dose of magic in my steampunk on occasion, I feel sometimes as though the technological leap in some of these stories from the most basic of Babbage’s designs to the designs and functions of the time periods represented
within the reality of a given novel of this genre could be compared to the jump from the first computers to the more sophisticated supercomputers imagined in the more advanced science fiction stories – if said technological leap took place in only about 30 to 40 years.
Of course technology improves and becomes more intricate, smaller, and more advanced over time. In the story that I’m currently working on, about 30 years have passed since the initial design of the Difference Engine. I have been trying to do some research to figure out realistically how far this technology would have come. If the trajectory of the technology were to match computer technology, they would likely be much smaller, possibly desktop PC sized, with functions that might come close to what we see in modern computers.
I am trying to find a balance that won’t seem totally ridiculous from a suspension of disbelief standpoint, but will also be a bit fantastic – after all I am writing a fantasy story.
For any of the writers out there: if you mix elements of technology into your stories of fantasy or alternate history, do you strive for some semblance accuracy or do you prefer to go with the more fantastic possibilities that genre allows?
I’d love to hear your input.
Here is some more information for anyone wanting to learn a little more about Charles Babbage and his visionary machine: