Fantastic Devices to Improve your Steampunk Reality: The Difference Engine


     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 Β 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:


11 thoughts on “Fantastic Devices to Improve your Steampunk Reality: The Difference Engine

  1. Interesting post on something that I think about often when writing. I find it an interesting balancing act between utilizing real science and technology, and letting the imagination soar into all sorts of fantastical inventions, when writing in the Steampunk genre. As I’m a scientist by training, I tend to lean on the side of including actual science of the day, but twisted somewhat from how it developed in our Universe. The key in getting away with having the fantasy seem not too unbelievable, I think, is in making it sound plausible by surrounding it with real science. You can’t force a reader to suspend disbelief, but you can get a reader to agree to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I’m not a scientist, I do appreciate when there is some basis in science. I like the idea of taking a device or technology from the past,and trying to think of how it would have continued to develop had the technologies that replaced it never been invented. I want readers to stop and think to themselves, “ok, I could see this as a possibility.”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice post! I really love this idea of the Difference Engine! In my own writing, which is also very much Fantasy based, I do a lot of research and also mnake stuff up on the spot, depends on my mood and the context of the story! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m the same way. I’m contemplating how to deal with the fact that radios had not been invented at the time in which my story takes place (about 1861-1862). I am looking at other people that were developing theories about radio waves at the time, to see if there is a way to advance their research enough to make my plot work.

      The research can be daunting, but I like to play “what if?” With different people from history within the context of my stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh well now you asked πŸ™‚

    All my steampunk stories are in the same setting which is essentially identical to our own except for one thing: In 1843 Sir Michael Faraday demonstrated his Principle for the Partial Nullification of the Effects of Gravity, and everything follows from that. It’s the *only* change but, of course, it has widespread effects and I’m always thinking of new applications. Initially they only get about 25% reduction in weight but by the turn of the century they’re up to 72% but can’t get past that limit. (I know how it works, and it doesn’t “stack”.)

    Just taking flight: suddenly all the ridiculous ideas for flight can work because everything is lighter. My Iron Pegasus stories are about two girls and their ornithopter in East Africa. The Germans still go the Zeppelin route but the payload is 4 times better. The British mostly go for massive VTOL vessels with steam-driven rotors. There are fixed wing planes, and others using even more obscure techniques (that do actually work in real life but this makes them usable).

    Most bigger land vehicles have a Faraday device built in – and the armies build huge land carriers. Space flight still isn’t easy but it’s achievable. Faraday effect wheelchairs, Faraday effect elevators. Faraday effect fairground attractions.

    And so it goes…

    Of course, because the Royal Navy was getting into air and space travel they needed Babbage’s machines, so they have those too πŸ™‚ but space flight is hard and dangerous because there’s no radio to speak of. (Oh and amusing science fact – with 72% gravity reduction you can achieve geo-synchronous orbit at only 7000 miles.)

    So yes, I use science but limiting it makes it so much more challenging and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is an interesting premise. I am actually reading the first book In your Maliha Anderson series right now.

      At first, the steampunk genre was just something I was going to try to challenge myself as a writer. I ended up enjoying the process so much, that I started building a world around the initial story. There are a couple of differences between our history and the history of my story. First, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace were successful in their ambition to build a difference engine. The other difference is that the American Civil War did not occur. President Lincoln opted to cut off all aid and place a trade embargo on the confederacy. His decision in my world was to let the Confederacy fail without sacrificing any lives in the process.

      I’m sure that I will be discovering more changes down the road, but those two are affecting two of my projects directly.


  4. It’s an interesting thing to try to balance. I like the approach you described in your comment where you’ve taken a single point of departure and worked out the consequences – I imagine it creates a more coherent feel to the world.

    Given the focus of the post, I’m guessing you’ve read Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine? It was the book that first introduced me to steampunk, and one where these devices are of central importance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have read it. It was not my introduction to Steampunk, but it was the novel that got me to truly appreciate what Steampunk could be.

    I have also learned that research and organization while writing are even more important in Steampunk than in other genres I’ve written in. I have a running timeline so that I am always able to look up important dates and occurrences as I am writing. I don’t want to vwer off of the established timeline.

    The single point really helped me to flesh out the world I’m creating. In the first (very) short story I published, I hadn’t come up with the point where history veered off from our own. At that point it was just that the American Civil War never happened. But in my research for my current WIP, I started researching automatons, and consequently the technology behind and history of the difference engine, and realized that this technology, had it succeeded could have changed history. That was so intriguing, it became the major point of departure for me.


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