Bibliophilia: A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine (1878)

I enjoy steampunk, a cultural aesthetic which celebrates what both ordinary and extraordinary things might look like, had technology progressed along the lines that Jules Verne and his contemporaries imagined. As a literary subgenre, it imagines that the immeasurable power of steam has opened the skies, leading legions of top-hatted gentlemen-explorers and parasol-wielding adventuresses to the heavens beyond.

With steampunk on my mind, after submitting the final semester grades, I took a moment to celebrate by poking through the stacks. I found this absolutely beautiful book, A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine, by Robert H. Thurston, published in 1878. (Full text via Google Books.)


This isn’t just a retro aesthetic, reacting against the streamlined and textureless Apple assembly line, or a self-conscious choice to make every bolt and gear visible in order to force us to come into direct contact with the technology. This is the real thing.
This engraving of the Worthington Pumping-Engine made my heart stop.

IMG_6619.JPGIMG_6623.JPGI also love the detail in this Compound Marine Engine. It’s proportioned so that it looks to my eye almost like a desk toy, but I assume that’s a person-sized hatchway visible on the left image. No riveted portholes? C’mon! I left the pages and my hand in the frame, so you can get a better idea of the materiality, the hefty bookiness of this book.


The illustrations of Greek proto-engines were delightful. This is a design for a mechanism that used steam power to open temple doors when a fire was lit on an altar. (The heat from the fire caused air to expand, which pushed water through a siphon, filling a bucket that eventually became heavy enough to operate a pulley. The door would close by itself when the fire went out, but it looks like the system would have to be reset manually in order to work again.)


Illustrations at the end of each chapter feature cherubs experimenting with steam, occasionally blowing themselves up, but triumphing in this image:

Soon shall thy arm, unconquered Steam, afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car ;
Or, on wide-waving wings expanded, bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air.

(These lines are credited to “The poet Darwin.”)


This engraving struck me as strangely familiar… it’s the Latta Steam Fire-Engine, which used steam power either to throw water on the fire, or to move itself through the streets. I dug through my digital photo archives to find snapshots I took at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, during a museum overnight that focused on horses.

My photos record the opposite side of the engine, but the shape of that bulbous pressure-regulation chamber is unmistakable.


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