Steampunk Basics: Why the Victorians Didn’t Have Robots

©2001, 2010 Paul Guinan

Do a Google Search, I Dare You: The Only Victorian Robot You’ll Find Is Boilerplate

If you’re like me, you’d prefer a world where the Victorians did have robots.  On the face of it, especially if you’re more of a literary dreamer type than a left-brained, green-blooded hobgoblin like Mr. Spock, Victorian robots don’t seem completely outrageous.  Even in the late 1700s, inventors had created complex puppets that could perform simple actions.  The Industrial Revolution sparked a widespread thirst for mechanization.  And even in the ancient world, storytellers like Homer envisioned golden women, formed completely of metal yet capable of physical tasks.  So if we plan a steampunk story that’s set more or less in the real Victorian world — Dickens, Disraeli, racism, sexism, religious intolerance, brothels and the Society for the Suppression of Vice — are Victorian robots really off the table?

Well … yeah.

©2001, 2010 Paul Guinan

The Steam Man, or Boilerplate

Boilerplate, the creation of artist Paul Guinan, was first unveiled on the web in 2000.  The character, intended for a graphic novel, was so lifelike that many people took it for genuine.  So Boilerplate became a sort of unintentional hoax, partly because it was brilliantly done, and partly because many of us, sadly, still believe everything we find on the interwebz is accurate.  Click here to view the site, which is genius, but really — Boilerplate fighting alongside Pancho Villa?  People took this as legit?

Naturally, the Victorians could have easily built the shell of a robot.  But they lacked the technology to make it think or make it move.   Below you will find the “Difference Engine,” the invention of Charles Babbage, father of the modern computer:

Imagine building a metal cranium to contain all that

And once you have your thinking machine tucked inside your robot’s steel skull, how to power it?  For some huge, hot, and possibly explosive ideas, you can check out my earlier post on steam power basics.  Or you can turn to that other Victorian and steampunk staple: clockwork.  Taken as part of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, TikTok, the Clockwork Man, is quite charming.  Drop him in a steampunk story and the effect might be less than desired.

(photo: Kozuch, 2009)   Anyone old enough to remember WINDING watches, in the days before Quartz movement?

Sadly, steam power was too messy and large-scale, clockwork mechanisms too simple and weak to power something as complex as a robot.  Even today, the robot we’re all most familiar and comfortable with is probably Roomba.  But in a very different Victorian landscape, one that advanced much quicker (perhaps one where Nikola Tessla was fully-funded and given the respect he deserved?  Hmmm…) I suppose someone with better scientific chops than mine could make a case for nineteenth-century robots.  In the meantime, you can find all the mechanoids you want on YouTube:

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