June 14, 2015

It Happened on June 14th

International Steampunk Day

©KyleCassidy/Wikimedia Commons
How can one begin to explain Steampunk? Originally, it was a literary genre -- or sub-genre, I suppose you would say. Later its influence spread to fashion, music, and lifestyle.

Steampunk can be considered a science-fiction sub-genre of historical fiction, I suppose, or a historical sub-genre of science fiction. It's generally set in Victorian or Edwardian times -- a time in which the Industrial Revolution has had an effect, but there is, as yet, no electricity. There are, however, amazing inventions, often powered by steam. Sometimes the stories take the form of alternative history, in which designs for inventions that had been proposed (in "real" 19th century times) have been actually produced. In other cases, real historical events are explained by imagined "secret" technology.

The term steampunk was coined by K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a term for the work of the novelists Tim Powers, James Blaycock, and himself. Their works, which are set in the 19th century, and usually in Victorian England, are imitative of the works of (real) 19th century science fiction writers such as H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne. In a letter to a science fiction magazine, Jeter said,

K. W. Jeter  ©Gemnerd/Wikimedia Commons
"Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaycock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks", perhaps..."

The Steampunk style extends to sculpture, art, and jewelry. Some include pieces of modern objects (computer keyboards, electric guitars) arranged in a Victorian aesthetic. Others are 19th century "scientific" objects -- such as springs and clockwork -- arranged in appropriate designs.

Steampunk fashion may be comprised of Victorian styles (corsets, spats, military dress) combined with suitable technology, such as goggles, parasols, and ray guns. Modern technology, such as cell phones, may be dressed in 19th century housing.

I don't' feel that I've really explained Steampunk very well, but then, Steampunk is hard to describe. Think Wild, Wild West. Think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And if you're looking for some accessories to give your life a little Steampunk flair, I recommend you take a look at Etsy.

Babbage Proposes the "Difference Engine", 1822

Charles Babbage
I don't know whether or not this was the reason that June 14th was chosen as International Steampunk Day, but it seems appropriate. (Several sources say that Steampunk Day was chosen in honor of H. G. Wells's birthday, but his birthday was actually in September.)

Charles Babbage was born in 1791 in London. As a child, he had suffered a severe fever, and his parents gave instructions to his schoolmasters that his "brain was not to be taxed too much." As a result, he was often idle, and occupied his mind with his own thoughts.

At Trinity College, Babbage found himself disappointed in the mathematical program, and, along with several friends, founded the Analytical Society. He belonged to several other clubs as well, including the Ghost Club, which investigated the supernatural, and the Extractors Club. The Extractors Club's purpose was to rescue any of its members from the madhouse, should they ever be sent there.

In 1812, the same year that the Analytical Society began, Babbage found himself pondering a table of logarithms which had been compiled by "computers" -- people who computed results. It struck Babbage that it might be done more accurately and much faster by machine.

The Difference Engine was finally built -- in 1991.  ©Geni/Wikimedia Commons
Years later, on June 14, 1822, Babbage presented a paper to the Royal Society proposing the construction of such a machine, which he called the Difference Engine. It was powered by cranking a handle. The British government provided financing to build the machine, but later withdrew their support, due to excessive costs and conflicts between Babbage and the engineers.

Babbage went on to work on a more complex design called the Analytical Engine, which operated by the use of punch cards. It was never built either, but if it had been, it would have worked similarly to modern computers in many respects. A program to calculate Bernoulli numbers, using the Analytic Engine, was written by Ada Lovelace, who was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Lovelace is generally regarded as the first computer programmer.

Babbage's first computer, the Difference Engine, was finally constructed by the London Science Museum, in honor of Babbage's 200th birthday in 1991. A printer, also designed by Babbage, was also built. They were both built according to tolerances which were known to be achievable in his time. With only a few minor corrections, the machines worked beautifully.

First Breach of Promise Suit in US, 1623

Cicely Reynolds was about 10 years old when she came to Virginia in 1610. No one knows who her parents were or why they came to the New World. We're not even sure their name was Reynolds.

We do know that her first husband was named Bailey, and that she had one child with him, who died as an infant. Bailey himself apparently died soon after the marriage, and Cicely married again, this time to Samuel Jordan. Cicely was 20 years old by then.

Jordan founded a settlement called Jordan's Journey, a plantation of 11 fortified buildings on the banks of the James River. Jordan's Journey was one of the few places that escaped the Great Indian Massacre of 1622. Survivors from the massacre sought safety there. One of the refugees was William Farrar, who became an admirer of Cicely.

Cicely's husband, Samuel Jordan, died in 1623, a year after the Indian raid. Cicely had two admirers by then, William Farrar and Reverend Greville Pooley. She was also pregnant with Jordan's child.

When Rev. Pooley sought Cicely's hand in marriage, she told him that she would as soon marry him as anyone else, but that she didn't think it proper to engage herself yet. After all, her husband had been buried only several days before, and she was still carrying his child. She couldn't give him an answer yet, she said.

But Pooley was insistent. A few days later he returned and plighted his troth to her. He also spoke her vows on her behalf. Cicely herself said nothing, but they apparently drank to each other, and Cicely kissed him. She asked him not to tell anyone yet.

Pooley was ecstatic about his new wife, who was apparently not only desirable but wealthy. He just couldn't keep quiet. This upset Cicely, and pretty soon she engaged herself to William Farrar.

At this point, Poole filed a lawsuit alleging breach of promise. The Virginia Courts didn't know how to handle it, so they referred it to London. London kicked it back to Virginia. Ultimately, Poole lost the case.

The lawsuit made quite an impression on the Court and the Governor. Soon afterwards, a proclamation was made that no woman was permitted to engage herself to two men at one time.

Cicely had three children with Farrar, who died in 1635. She is rumored to have been married twice after that, once to Peter Montague and once to Thomas Parker, but those marriages are not well documented.

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