Guest Post: Dulcimers & Draughtsmen: Misconceptions of 18th Century Technology

Today I’m pleased to welcome to the blog a member of my online writing group, Rob Haines. He’s a veteran of last year’s Angry Robot Open Door month and wrote a book about warring chefs in an alternate Paris, which has some amazingly cool steampunk technology. Here, he discusses his research for writing his novel.

When I sat down to write a novel set in an alternate early-19th Century Paris, I thought I had a good idea of the level of technology available in Western Europe at the time: simple windup toys, tinny music-boxes, clocks with big swinging pendulums, that sort of thing. So I wrote a first draft based on my assumptions and a quick scan of the internet, exaggerating the level of clockwork technology available in line with the alternate history I was creating.

But once the draft was done and I buried myself in researching clockwork and automata in more depth, I rapidly discovered how wrong my assumptions had been. Even prior to the onset of the steam age, inventors and artisans the world over were no stranger to mechanisms so complex they can seem totally anachronistic to us, and suddenly the advanced technology I’d introduced in my draft seemed rather tame compared to reality.

As far back as the 12th Century, the Islamic scholar al-Jazari was renowned for his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, a handbook on the construction of machines from complex astronomical clocks to hand-washing automata, providing soap and towels to the user at pre-defined points in the process. So if simple robotics were already well-known mid-way through the Crusades, what technological advances would the next seven-hundred years bring?

Flashing forward to the 1700s, French clockmakers were pushing forward the art of automata. Jacques de Vaucanson, a glove-maker’s son, built a life-size robotic flute-player which genuinely played the instrument, blowing air between articulated lips, modulated with a metal tongue, the airholes obstructed by its fingers – gloved in skin, after Vaucanson realised wooden fingers lacked the proper acoustics. It’s hardly surprising that when he created a set of automata to serve dinner for the visiting head of a religious order, the visitor declared Vaucanson’s creations to be profane, and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.

More impressive – and a little less creepy – is Henri Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer, the inspiration for the film Hugo:

 

When this marvellous device was rediscovered in 1928, its origins were unknown, but within its century-old memory – movements enscribed in the undulations of the cams beneath its feet – this writer held seven drawings and poetry, which it was designed to write on command. Once repaired, the automaton raised its pen and spelled out the name of its creator.

By this point it was clear I’d vastly underestimated the technology of the time, even if it was mostly employed in toys and amusements for the wealthiest members of society. I’d definitely be ramping up the complexity of automata and clockwork in my next draft. But even as I sat down to write, I encountered one last astounding automaton, far removed from my stereotypical ideas of toys and music-boxes; a beautiful German gift for the French Queen, Marie Antoinette:

 

Rob Haines is a writer, podcaster and ex-turtle biologist. His work can be found at www.generationminusone.com

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Dulcimers & Draughtsmen: Misconceptions of 18th Century Technology

  1. Fascinating stuff! There’s so much pre-industrial technology that’s been overlooked because it was individually handmade rather than mass-produced – or because we arrogantly assume that previous civilisations were less capable than us.

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