Steampunk, Futuristic Insight and Tom Swift
For those unfamiliar, steampunk combines elements of science fiction and fantasy overlaying elements of the Victorian era and industrialization, especially steam power. Steampunk literature features futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them. Fictional machinery that H. G. Wells or Jules Verne invented for their novels are models for steampunk. The steampunk genre presents a romantic idealization of the 19th century and an escape from modern realities. Steampunk culture values a more formal approach to manners and dress.
So how does the punk fit into this retro-genteel world? Punk loosely references the cyberpunk style with anti-establishment sentiments. Various sub-cultures of punk have evolved since the late 1960s, but it seems the common thread of non-conformity weaves through most of followers’ ideology.
While famous writers often receive all the credit for futuristic insight, other writers deserve credit for their insightful predictions. A friend just happened to show me a well-worn book that was recycled into a depository for redistribution and sale of no longer needed reading materials. The title: Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone by Victor Appleton, who published this novel in 1914. The telephone had been around for 35 years.
This novel was one in a series of science fiction stories, Tom being the main character. Appleton published more than 100 books following the adventures of Tom and his creation of many inventions. Tom is portrayed as a heroic character who uses science and technology to outsmart the “bad guys.”
Chapter 1 begins:
“It can’t be done, Tom! It can’t be done! To transmit pictures over a telephone wire, so that persons cannot only see to whom they are talking, as well as hear them–well, to be frank with you, Tom, I should be sorry to see you waste your time trying to invent such a thing.”
Illustration of Tom’s invention:
Favorite inventions featured in steampunk art and stories are the airships, submarines, flying machines, analogue computers and anything steam-powered. In this novel, part of the plot involves thieves stealing Tom’s airship. Alongside these representations, many gadgets accompany the story lines, such as time-travel weaponry, goggles, industrialized jewelry, and assorted timepieces. Steampunk encourages the imagination toward alternative technologies, frequently incorporating the Victorian aesthetic while thinking about what “punk” might bring to speculative future. Drawing from this novel, another invention can be added to the collection: the photo telephone.
Although Appleton’s novel is rarely included in the lists of science fiction predictions that came true, I think it is time to give this author’s writing in the post-Victorian era credit for providing a glimpse into future technologies.