As 21st century Americans, we take power for granted. We flip a switch, press a button, or turn a key and the lights go on, the computer powers up, or the engines in our cars engage. The only time most of us give these processes any thought is when we get our utility bills or go to the gas station to fill the tank.
Prior to the advances of electricity, however, we lived in an age of steam. The ideas for steam power go back as far as the 1st century AD, in Alexandria, Egypt. Over the centuries, inventors played around with steam power, making many discoveries and advances, but it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that steam powered engines came into their own as practical tools.
The mining industry was the first practical application of early steam engines. In England, steam powered pistons drove mining equipment which made that dangerous job easier and faster. The engines were not perfect, and wasted a lot of energy, but they worked. Subsequent improvements and new applications of steam power issued in the Industrial Revolution, both in Europe and America.
By the mid-1800s, steam powered engines were powering railroad engines, enabling Europe and America to grow and connect people and goods over vast distances. By the end of the century, one could take a train across America, or ship goods and materials all over the country. Tidy fortunes were made by the men who built the tracks and shipped the goods. Massive fortunes were made by the men who owned the railroad lines.
Steam Power on the Water
Similarly, steam powered ships changed that industry as well. No longer did a ship owner wait for favorable winds to take his goods overseas; a steam engine could power through, come fair weather or foul. The first steam powered vessels were small craft with simple steam engines that powered a paddle wheel, thus moving the boat through the water.
In America, Robert Fulton built the first commercially viable steamboat in 1807. It was called the Clermont, and took passengers from New York City to Albany. The 150-mile journey up the Hudson took 32 hours.
By mid-century, paddlewheel steamships were plying river waters everywhere. Troy, being the last northern port accessible on the Hudson without using locks and the canals, became a major terminal for both goods and passengers. River Street, as chronicled in previous blog posts, was greatly shaped by the industry and traffic generated on the river.
Just before the Civil War, the invention of the screw propeller changed steam ships, enabling ships to be built of plate steel. The famous Union ship, the Monitor, was built in Brooklyn with steam plates manufactured at ironworks in both Albany and Troy. War always stimulates inventions and industry.
By the end of the 19th century, large steam ships (which is what the “SS” in a steamship’s name comes from) were sailing the world’s seas. They made possible the great immigrations of the early 20th century, the faster import and export of goods around the globe, as well as later innovations in general technology, as steam power moved from coal to petroleum products to nuclear power, as well as recent experiments in sustainable solar power.
Steam Power and Industry
Of course, steam power changed industry forever. Here in Troy and the Capital Region, water power was the initial power source that made possible the iron and textile industries. Burden’s water wheel took the water from the Wynantskill Creek and powered his factory from it. Further north, the power of water made possible the collar and cuff mills along the river in Troy, while the Cohoes Falls and a series of canals powered the massive turbines at Harmony Mills in Cohoes.
But what if your factory wasn’t near the water? Coal-fed steam power made it possible to have a factory anywhere. By the end of the 19th century, most of the manufacturing in America ran on steam power. Every industry imaginable, including the factories that made the iron that made the machines that ran other factories – all powered by the steam engines that turned the belts that moved the gears that made everything from electricity itself to furniture, clothing, precision instruments, and much, much more.
And so it was, until modern uses of electricity came along. The belts and gears eventually were replaced, one hundred years later by computer chips, robotics, lasers and other devices. The age of steam is now history.
Our Fascination with the Industrial World
Most people are now so removed from the manufacture of the goods we use every day. Most of us don’t have a clue how those things even work. I have no idea how my cell phone works, or the computer I use every day. Most of us have lost the Maker gene. Perhaps that’s one reason why Steampunk became so popular.
There’s an alternative American history/fantasy series by Orson Scott Card called the Tales of Alvin Maker. The hero of the books is Alvin Maker, the seventh son of a seventh son, born into a very different America. The books are set in the mid-1800s. Everyone in this society Card has created has what is called a “knack.” Some are healers, others growers, etc. Alvin, who becomes a blacksmith, is a “Maker.” He can change both living and non-living materials by force of will. It’s a very powerful and rare ability. A Maker could be a powerful force for good or evil. In his journey, Alvin encounters many historic characters. In the series, Benjamin Franklin is referred to in the series as a Maker. I recommend the books highly.
All that to say, being a Maker is a wonderful and powerful thing. Steampunk allows people to engage in their inner Maker. You may be a corporate drone by day, but a true Steampunker can also be a Maker. Whether you have the talent and skills to create fantastic machines, or fantastic costumes, or just be aware of how fantastic those things are, you can join a fantasy world made real.
The novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells may have started it all, but Hollywood gave it its initial vision, with movies such as 2002’s Time Machine, scenes of which were filmed in Troy. TV shows such as Max Headroom (dating self here) showed us that it was possible to live in a world of computers with keyboards made from old typewriters and screens from vacuum-tube television sets. The old is cobbled together to create the new. Antiques and technology – the original D.I.Y. - that’s Steampunk.
One’s imagination is the only limit. In a world where everyone has the same stuff, you can be different. The real Victorian world, which is all around us in Troy’s architecture, could be stuffy and limiting. Steampunk Troy allows you to be sexy, mysterious, or just strange, and no one is going to look twice. Not even if you are sporting a set of wings. Especially if those wings have gears and pistons and are super cool.
This year, Troy’s Fourth Annual Enchanted City Steampunk Festival is on Saturday, September 16th. Bigger and better than ever, the festival will be held in Riverfront Park. This will enable the Makers, big and small, to have much more room to show off, and talk about their inventions, as well as centralize everything in one spot.
It will also allow for more vendors to set up tents and hawk their wares. My booth, Blatherscat Designs, will be there, next door to my friend Debii Jackson’s Jenny Sparrow Works. I’ve got new bags and purses, pillows for your castle and mitts for your hands. Deb will have her signature found object and watch part figures and jewelry, as well as crowns and headpieces for your inner Steampunk Oberon and Queen Mab.
There will also be food vendors, lots of activities for kids, the annual Maker’s competition, a costume parade and competition, music and street entertainments. The Farmer’s Market will also be nearby on River Street, as per usual that Saturday, so you’ll be able to enjoy both events. Be sure to buy a fabric bag from me to carry your veggies and baguettes home. Support a Maker, or two, or five!
More information and details can be found at www.enchantedcitytroy.com/2017. You can also follow activities on Facebook. Just look for QueenMabsEnchantedCity page.
I hope to see you then!
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.