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Steam Powered Victorian Era Robots Failed Miserably But Inspired Science Fiction Stories

As it turns out, robophobia (fear of robots) has been around since we were mere glimmers in the eyes of our ancestors. On March 24, 1868 Zadoc P. Dederick and Isaac Grass of Newark New Jersey built a steam-powered “man” to pull loads that would “tax the strength of three draught horses.” They dreamed of building hundreds more, but the Victorian Era Robots failed miserably. Even so, they inspired Science Fiction for generations to come.

Filed under patent number 75874, the robot, known as Dederick’s Steam Man, operated by a system of levers, cranks and pistons attached to a boiler in the body where steam was generated. Steam Man a.k.a. Daniel Lambert, stood seven feet nine inches high and weighed approximately 500 pounds.

According to the Peninsular Courier and Family Visitant, January 23, 1868:

“The legs which support it are complicated and wonderful. The steps are taken very naturally and quite easily. As the body is thrown forward upon the advanced foot the other is lifted from the ground with a spring and thrown forward by the steam. Each step or pace advances the body two feet, and every revolution of the engine produces four paces. As the engine is capable of making more than a thousand evolutions a minute, it would get over the ground, on this calculation, at the rate of a little over a mile a minute.”

Wisely, the creators decided this speed could be dicey on uneven ground or even cobble stones. They downgraded Daniel’s speed to 500 revolutions per minute, which resulted in a more modest speed of a half a mile per minute.

Dederick and Grass dressed “Daniel” in the fashion of the time with pantaloons, coat and vest, top hat and gloves. They claimed this was to prevent their Steam Man from frightening horses. Never mind the horses. It seems that more than a few humans would run at the sight of a 500-pound iron giant propelling down the road at any speed.

The face is molded into a cheerful countenance of white enamel, which contrasts well with the dark hair and mustache. A sheet iron hat with a gauge top acts as a smoke stack.”

Many assumed the Steam Man’s costume was just a marketing ploy to help him and other Victorian Era Robots gain acceptance. Even today robotics companies anthropomorphize their humanoids.

Consider Pepper, the robot from SoftBank. Pepper communicates with humans through voice, touch, and the expression of emotions. S/he is one of the first PromoBots built for customer service. (Note that sexism, racism and cultural differences are already affecting the world of robots.)

The cost of the “first steam man” was roughly $2,000. Dederick and Glass expected to manufacture many more, driving the price down to $300. But that came with a warranty to run a year without repair.

Pepper the PromoBot comes in at roughly $2,000, but there’s an additional monthly fee for 36 months, depending on your plan.

Dederick and Glass also planned to build horses “which will do the duty of twelve ordinary animals of the same species.

These, it is confidently believed, can be used alike before carriages, streetcars and plows. The man now constructed can make his way without difficulty over any irregular surface whose ruts and stones are not more than nine inches below or above the level of the road.”

Victorian Era Robots Made A Huge Splash Then Fizzled Fast

On March 17, 1868 after much promotion and fanfare, the Steam Man was ready for his performance. Dederick and Glass rented a space for their robot across from where P.T. Barnum’s American Museum had burned just two weeks before on March 3, 1868. According to newspaper accounts, the crowd was rowdy with excitement and skepticism. Unfortunately, Dederick had to make the announcement that “Daniel” was out of steam and could not perform that day.

The Steam Man’s no-show did not amuse the crowd. They were not buying grandiose claims of future performance. A reporter for the Newark Courier wrote:

“When will all this humbug, all about an iron boiler in a smock frock, be done with? That which is called “the steam man” never did, and in all probability never will, walk the length of his nose.”

Dederick also had planned to build a steam-powered steed that could do the work of twelve horses. Due to the cost of the Steam Man, his Victorian Era Robots never caught on. Future Steam Men were never built, nor was the mechanical horse.

Joseph Faber’s Marvelous Talking Machine, Euphonia

It’s interesting to note that many other inventors were working on Victorian Era Robots. One was Joseph Faber and his talking machine. Her face was much like that of Dederick’s Steam Man was described.

The photo was taken by Mathew Brady’s studio during the time that P.T. Barnum showed it at his American Museum of curiosities in New York City, circa 1860. At the helm of Faber’s machine you can see the pretty, albeit “stony-eyed” female mask. The face had functional lips fashioned from India rubber, a tongue, rubber palate, lower jaw and cheeks. Faber’s later version also sported long corkscrew curls, presumably to increase her charm quotient.

Frank Reade And The Steam Man Of The Prairies

While Dederick’s Steam Man failed miserably in the real world of Victorian Era Robots, it inspired an entire genre of storytelling. Written by prolific author Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies was the first science fiction “dime novel” in America.

It featured Ethan Hopkins and Mickey McSquizzle who encounter a giant steam-powered man while crossing the Prairies. Johnny Brainerd built the Victorian Era Robot, which he uses as transportation to his many adventures.

The series was a stellar success with dozens of sequels. Thanks to the mechanization of the printing process (yes, robots did that) this first “comic book” launched and entire genre of dime novels. The original Steam Man was reissued six times between 1868 and 1904.

The Special Collections Department at the University of South Florida LINK has a significant collection (8,000 plus) of dime novels, penny dreadfuls and story papers.

From The Luddites To Robophobia

Robots are machines that can replicate certain human movements and functions automatically. Rightfully, humans have feared replacement by robots since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites have wrongfully become known through history as technophobes.

The Luddites were skilled, textile workers in the Northern England. In the early 1800s, machines including weaving frames began doing their jobs. Low-paid, less skilled workers replaced them in dismal factories.

The luddites tried to negotiate with factory owners. Their belief was that if the owners were going to make more money by being more productive, they should pass some of the profit on to the workers. When it became apparent that concept wouldn’t work, Luddites began smashing the new-fangled machines between 1811-1812. Parliament sent troops to the English countryside to crush the rebellion. More than a dozen Luddites were executed.

Where Will It End?

The implications for automation are more relevant today than ever. Robots are doing everything from surgery to conducting orchestras and running factories. They’re even writing music. And of course, there’s Pepper who is making waves in the world of human interaction.

According to Daily Mail.co.uk, a 2017 report by accounting giant PwC, 38 percent of US jobs will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence by the early 2030s. In the UK the number is 30 percent, 35 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Japan.

With robots making great strides in replicating human empathy and powers of reasoning, it’s definitely time we take a good look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we can be better human beings than our robotic counterparts.

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