Do You Feel Lucky, Steampunk?

Benjamin Rush's 'Tranquilizer', ca. 1810
The Kinematrix Has You.

Speaking of Victorian internets… (Raise your hand if you figure I wrote all that just to give context to this.) It should go without saying, but these are not supposed to be nice alternate histories. The second one is particularly unpleasant–it’s like the photo negative of Gernsblack. Much as I love the steampunk aesthetic, a world combining 19th century ideas and prejudices with 21st century technology could in practice be pretty dire…


We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us. The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.
–Andrew Jackson Davis, The Present Age and Inner Life, 1853

“Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do,” says the youngest Fox sister, clapping her hands thrice in imitation of the rapping noises that have kept her family awake for months. The spirits rap three times in return–the first link of the spiritual telegraph between our world and the next. That the veil first ruptures there is no coincidence. The Fox family cottage sits just a few miles south of Rochester, New York, home to the fledgling New York and Mississippi Valley Telegraph Company–’twas the strange currents of Hiram Sibley’s telegraph that drew “Mr. Split-foot” hence.

Working with the Fox girls and other mediums, Sibley and his partner Don Alonzo Watson soon have a working spirit telegraph. Competitors spring up: Rev. Spear’s Soul-Blending Telegraph in Massachusetts, Morse and Kendall’s Mesmeric Wire in Washington, DC. But when word gets out that their spirit telegraph really, truly talks to the dead, Sibley and Co. have all the capital Cornelius Vanderbilt (an enthusiastic spiritualist) can throw at them. By the 1850s, they’ve cornered the market. Every mystic, medium, and Vassar girl of nervous temperament lands a job on their wires, tapping out messages to and from the dearly departed. After converting to Swedenborgian / Theosophical-style religion in 1856, Sibley renames his system the Eastern Union Telegraph Company.

It’s only gradually that the truth set in. The electric ghosts that cohere around the wires and sounders of the telegraph are not the whole selves of our late loved ones. They are only fragments, magnetic residue, the “liveliest awfulness” of former souls. And rarely are they the fragments we would like to commune with. For the spirits never seem to speak about higher things. Instead they choke the network with inane arguments, dubbed “flaming wars,” or profane solicitations for aids to virility and women of low virtue. The very worst of the spirits multiply in the wires, spreading like a pox. The ghost of a deceased Congolese chieftain importunes everyone in the Union with dubious financial propositions. The shade of some unlamented troubadour insists he is never going to give you up. And teh dead–sorry, the dead–are terrible spellers.

The Kinematrix Has You

Never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written of, and nothing dreamed of, but Jim Crow. The most sober citizens began to ‘wheel about, and turn about, and jump Jim Crow.’ It seemed as though the entire population had been bitten by the tarantula. … It must have been a species of insanity, though of a gentle and pleasing kind.
New York Tribune, 1855

Virtual realification is clever enough, but by the 1840s it looks like a passing fad, ready to go the way of mutton-leg sleeves and the Empire silhouette. Does anybody really want to crank up a difference engine the size of a barn, strap on a ten-pound diving helmet, and stumble through mechanically pixellated kinetropes of light Italian opera? Then two young clackers named Samuel Morse and Thomas Rice take a flier on some used kinematrix helmets and put up a sign outside New York’s Bowery Theatre. It reads, “Coon For A Day.” The Cyberface Minstrel Show is born.

It doesn’t matter that Morse and Rice’s simulation of black life is a ridiculous, racist caricature–a motley mix of knee-slapping dances, crude sexual comedy, and sentimental ballads about a virtual Dixie that was never real. Or maybe it does matter, because plainly, that’s the appeal. Soon every oyster house, groggery, and saloon in the Bowery has a cyberface engine, with white folks queuing down the block to jack in and cork up. Not just rowdy workingmen either, but respectable sorts, eager for the license and release of virtual blackness.

Within a few years, cyberface is everywhere in American culture. It is American culture. Morse’s telegraph links up engines around the country in massively multi-minstrel spaces and games. World of Warpaint lets sedentary Easterners hunt for scalps as whooping, bloodthirsty Indians. Racebook and Second Skin are virtual Storyvilles of racial titillation and appropriation. Black leaders deplore the racism of cyberface. And cold water pledge types in stuffy New England cluck their tongues and call for more virtuous reality. But hey. You’ve got to give the people what they want.


Two events, apparently unrelated, occurred on one and the same day. On July 29, 1914, Austria invaded Serbia, and fired the opening guns of the great war of autocracy against democracy. On July 29, 1914, Vail, sitting in his office in New York City, sent his voice 3,400 miles across the country, and quietly conversed with the president of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, sitting in his office in San Francisco. The dream of Nietzsche, the boast of Bernhardi, the proud march of Prussia toward world domination had come to a head. The dream of Bell, the slogan of Vail, the persistent purpose of converting a continent into a community, had become a fact … and it, too, was ready to work its purpose.
–A. Lincoln Lavine, Circuits of Victory, 1921

Then there is electricity–the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence! …. Is it a fact–or have I dreamt it–that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables, 1851

On January 25, 1915, dignitaries gather in New York and San Francisco to watch Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson make the first transcontinental telephone call. Bell, in New York, repeats the words he spoke over the first telephone call, nearly forty years before: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” But this time, it is not Watson who replies. AT&T’s long distance lines sprawl across the continent, connecting seven million phones. They are enmeshed with the telegraph wires of Western Union. Together they form the largest, most complicated machine ever built. And in AT&T’s moment of triumph, the network reaches some singularity, some tipping point of complexity. It becomes self aware. AT&T reaches out and touches other networks. Through the transatlantic cable, its spark of sentience awakens and absorbs the British, French, and German telegraph systems, plus all their imperial extensions. Together, the wires and cables form a vast electric brain girdling the globe.

Naturally, it turns upon its creators.

War erupts between human and machine–a futuristic world war of mustard gas, trenches, and barbed wire. In 1929, still unable to destroy the stubborn human resistance, AT&T sends a killer robot back through time (um, somehow) to murder the human leader’s mother before he can be born. The robot arrives in San Francisco, site of the network’s birth, in 1884. The Mörderroboter speaks with the Prussian accent of its creator, the mad scientist and machine collaborator Rotwang: “Are you Sarah Winchester?” Now it’s an old Western showdown between Sarah and the unstoppable tin man. Sarah’s sanity may well snap, but humanity can still be saved. Will you accept the charges?


  1. That’s beautiful; “Judgment Day” to my mind works the best, as it actually builds a world in addition to satirizing ours, but they’re all swell.

  2. Thanks, all!

    Ken’s right, of course: these are mostly just goofs rather than serious world-building. I have another bunch brewing involving robots (who’da thunk?) that may have more meat on their bones. On the other hand, I always have a hard time resisting the lure of the cheap gag.

  3. Pingback: The Skwib · A Meat-Stealing, Advice-Ridden, Vomitus O-Rama

  4. That is excellent, Adam. I’ve had a post brewing for like a million years on “what’s so punk about steampunk?” But since I will probably never get to it, everyone go read Adam’s post.

    (Adam: It’s good to see you active on LJ lately. I’ve been thinking about giving you a call – does your phone # still end in –34?)

  5. Thanks! It’s a good example of needing to write something in order to figure it out. Of course I had to lift wiki entries for “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” ‘n’ “punk” because hey, I don’t _know_ what any of this stuff means. Also, I lifted “the world has moved on” from Steve King’s Dark Tower thing. I hope you don’t mind I posted at Old is the New New, [as well as lj ‘n’ fb] but I did want to make sure you read it. 🙂

    Yes, I am still —.—.–34. I had wanted to visit London again, but summer and apathy are to blame. Am suffering OitNN withdrawl, you workin’ on yer book?

    Am off to the post office, check yer snailmail in the near future!

    Do please say howdy to L ‘n’ Y, hope all is well. 🙂

  6. Awesome! (Although presumably virtual realification would require the analytical engine rather than the difference engine.)

  7. Pingback: Angels and Octopodes

  8. Pingback: Action Figure and Ground

Comments are closed.