Thursday, October 28, 2010

GUEST POST: K.M. Weiland on 13 Places to Find Inspiration

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas. My typically trite reply is, “Everywhere.” I once grabbed a kitchen towel and told someone, “I could write a story about this towel if I wanted to.” While that response was likely a bit extreme (I could write a story about a kitchen towel, but I couldn’t guarantee that it’d be interesting!), it is true that inspiration is all around us. As I explain in my recently released CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration (, inspiration is always there for the taking. We just have to figure out where the harvest is ripest. Following are some places where we’re always sure to find inspiration:
  1. Dreams. Pay attention to the vivid imagery and the bizarre juxtaposition of your dreams. Perhaps even start a dream journal.
  2. Movies. The visual/auditory combination of movies and theater has something to offer just about everyone. View movies as more than just entertainment; consider them idea labs.
  3. Paintings. Great artistic ventures offer us the emotional high points of human history. Visit an art museum and study the paintings to figure out what draws you, what repulses you, and what leaves you cold.
  4. Music. Music is the arguably the purest form of storytelling, since it taps directly into our emotional core, without even the necessity of words. Find an instrumental song and see if you can write out the story it’s trying to tell.
  5. Life. Even if you don’t want to write about your own life, never discount the value of your experiences. Live widely and live deeply.
  6. Nature. The virtue, the violence, the vibrancy, and the variety of the natural world is a never-ending well of possible story ideas.
  7. Books. As writers we feed off each other, gaining and giving in a never-ending cycle. Read voraciously; it’s the best way to study the craft.
  8. Dictionary. If you’re stumped for a new story idea or for a way to progress your plot, open your dictionary to a random page for an instant story prompt. Pick a word and see where it takes you.
  9. History. Even if you don’t write historical fiction, history, as a recording of all of human experience, is rife with story ideas. At the very least, understanding history can bring a broader understanding of life and its truths to our work.
  10. Exercise. Who says writers need to be pudgy desk jockeys? Get out there and pump some blood. Your brain works better when the rest of your body is moving.
  11. Shower. Need a good idea? Just add water! Writers should just take up permanent residence in the shower. Something about that warm, running water is always good for jumpstarting creativity.
  12. Curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s what puts bread on the writer’s table. Never stop asking questions—especially what if?
  13. Eavesdropping. Join the writer club and you get a special exemption card that allows you to eavesdrop with impunity. Who knows what juicy tidbits you’ll pick up on your next jaunt to the grocery store.
Of course, this little list isn’t anywhere close to exhaustive. But hopefully it serves as a reminder for us to keep our eyes and ears and imaginations wide open wherever we go. Inspiration is waiting. All we have to do is find it.

K.M. Weiland
K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, workshops, and her recently released instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Jon S. Lewis is the co-creator of the world of The Grey Griffins in The Revenge of the Shadow King (2006), which has been optioned for a movie by Deathly Pale Productions. A new Grey Griffins trilogy begins with The Brimstone Key, Book I of The Clockwork Chronicles. The book is the first foray into Steampunk that Jon and co-author Derek Benz have taken with the series.

I spent quite a few Saturdays in my local comic book shop growing up, and I was always intrigued by Marvel’s What If titles. Each issue asked a deep philosophical question like “What if the X-Men died on their first mission?” or “What if Spider-man had six arms?”

Okay, so maybe the questions weren’t very deep, but we’ve all played the “what if” game, right? “What if I would have married the first person I kissed?” or “What if I would have gone to medical school like my brother who drives the BMW?”

“What if?” became an important question for the Grey Griffins . . .

Derek and I decided early in our writing careers that we weren’t going to name modern technology in our books. That meant words like “cell phone,” “laptop,” “SUV,” and “iPod” were banned. Why? Technology is moving so rapidly that we didn’t want to date the stories. I mean, when we were writing our first book (The Revenge of the Shadow King), the term “smart phone” wasn’t even coined yet, Napster had stronger brand recognition than iTunes, and eReaders were little more than a dream.

There was a problem, though. Tweens and teens are hardwired into digital communication and even though the hardware is bound to change, their passion for digital media won’t. So introducing technology into the series was critical, but how could we do that without making our stories stand out like butterfly collars, bellbottom jeans or parachute pants?

At about that same time, Derek picked up a copy of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. We were already fans of the Steampunk aesthetic, but for some reason the idea of introducing Steampunk into our stories hadn’t crossed our minds. Alan Moore helped us see the light, and we asked ourselves the following question: “What if our world was invaded by Steampunk culture?”

It was the perfect solution! We could introduce futuristic technology wrapped in a timeless package, like laptops in leather cases with brass corners where the keypad looked like it was taken from an early model Remington typewriter. And instead of walking around in wizards robes, the students at Iron Bridge Academy could wear things like classic safari gear, petticoats, knickers with argyle socks, driving caps and goggles.

Then, instead of fighting trolls, dragons and faeries, we could set our heroes against fresh villains like clockwork soldiers and steam-powered war machines. It was too delicious to pass up.

We hope the end result is an action-packed adventure that fans of our original trilogy will enjoy. At the same time, we’re excited about introducing a new crop of readers to Steampunk in much the same way that J.K. Rowling introduced an entire generation to fantasy books through Harry Potter. Okay, so maybe we won’t have quite that impact, but you never know.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The contest to win a Grey Griffins prize pack is open until November 5; put your entry in the comments thread of the announcement post to be entered for a chance to win.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Brimstone Key, Book I of The Clockwork Chronicles by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis

The Brimstone Key (Little, Brown, June 2010, $15.99 in Hardcover, 369 pages) is the first installment in a new trilogy featuring the Grey Griffins -- Max Sumner, Harley Eisenstein, Ernie Tweeny, and Natalia Romanov -- regular kids from Avalon, Minnesota who became monster hunters under the tutelage of the Knights Templar in the first trilogy authors Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis conceived of.

I never read the original Grey Griffins trilogy, so to come at The Brimstone Key from the perspective of a neophyte to the characters was an interesting one. There's an entire swath of character development and history that I missed out on by not reading the first three books, but Benz and Lewis write so skillfully that I didn't feel lost for a second. The narration gives background without pulling the reader from the story, and switching between the perspectives of Max, Natalia, Harley, and Ernie helped keep the reader abreast of everything that's going on while making certain the reader's not lost.

This new story opens with the Griffins on the eve of transferring into Iron Bridge Academy, a Templar training school for young people who are being trained in the hunting of monsters. But all's not well at Iron Bridge. Soon after the school year starts, changelings (children with fairy blood) begin disappearing -- taken in the dead of night via magical portal. The Griffins realize that the strange hiding place they discovered over the summer, filled with mechanisms and blueprints of clockwork devices, holds more importance than they realized. Especially as one name comes up again and again: Otto Von Strife, the Clockwork King.

Von Strife spent a century locked up in one of the Round Table cards so central to the Grey Griffins series, and when he gets out and starts wreaking havoc, it falls to the Griffins and their Templar allies to move against him. After the climax of the story, I'm certain the rest of the books in the trilogy will keep the adventure moving.

As to the Steampunk elements, Benz and Lewis chose to create Iron Bridge in a city called New Victoria, that retained its Victorian sensibilities, which is on the other side of the veil from Avalon, Minnesota. The children of Iron Bridge dress in Steampunk garb complete with goggles and brass fittings on their outfits -- the goggles are explained because they allow games of Round Table to be played in 3D -- and of course since the Griffins are completely lost in the realm of fashion the authors are allowed the freedom to explain the style of the clothing.

Clockwork robots, Steampunk clothing, and a city that never moved past the Victorian Age are just a few of the fun Steampunk elements within a very, very fun opening to a new trilogy of stories. There's some good tearjerker moments as well, particularly if you've read the original stories that featured the Griffins. That's not to say a reader can't pick up this novel without having read the other ones. I did, and certainly found the story to be engaging, engrossing, and entertaining without feeling lost in the slightest.

I'm definitely looking forward to the second book -- The Relic Hunters, due out in Spring 2011.

And now we move onto a CONTEST!!

There are several prizes available for this fun little contest:

FIRST PRIZE: A copy of THE BRIMSTONE KEY with signed bookmarks, and your choice of one of the following posters:

* SIM Chamber (like the X-Men Danger Room):
Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth place winners will each get their choice of poster. 
Now for The Rules:

In the comments of this post, tell me your wackiest idea for a Steampunk invention that could exist today. Portable mechanical kinotrope? Steam-powered automobile with the ability to brew tea while driving? Artificial limb that runs on mechanics? 

The crazier the invention, the more fun it is. Your inventions will be scored based on plausibility, purpose, and inventiveness, and the contest will end on Friday, November 5.

Oh, and I'm running the same contest at Gear Bits and Clockwork and Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, so remember to head over there to posit your inventions as well. That gives everyone 15 chances to win something! You read that right: 15 chances to win.

All entries must be received by 12 am on Friday, November 5 to be considered.

SPECIAL NOTE: There will be a guest post from J.S. Lewis, co-author of The Brimstone Key, later this week; Mr. Lewis will be talking about the challenges of integrating Steampunk tech into contemporary times.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Random Historicial Trivia: The Meaning of "Condescending" defines the word condescending as "showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority, as in 'They resented the older neighbors' condescending cordiality.'"
We all know people that can be described as condescending; they're generally aloof, snobbish, and a whole lot of fake rolled into one. Many people today hate being condescended to, because it means that they're somehow less than the person doing the condescending. 
You might then be interested to know that being condescending wasn't always a bad thing. An older, less-used definition of the word has condescend as a verb rather than an adjective, and defines it as "to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity." A good example would be the Queen of England talking to someone of a lower social rank without appearing to talk down to that person. In that case, the Queen would have condescended to the lower rank of the other person.
There are letters from the American Civil War where Confederate* soldiers praise the ability of their superior officers to condescend to their level. Specifically where the superior officer was one of the upper classes, it was always seen as a good thing for them to have the ability to step down, as it were, from their higher station in life and speak plainly with their subordinates. It wasn't until much, much later that the act of condescension took on the negative connotation it has today.
Perhaps the alteration in meaning might be tied to changing attitudes in the United States in the Reconstruction Era, and particularly the pat-on-the-head condescension that many Americans felt from foreign-born travelers and politicians. James Russel Lowell wrote an essay, On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, that ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. Within Lowell's essay is the following line:
"So long as we continue to be the most common-schooled and the least cultivated people in the world, I suppose we must consent to endure this condescending manner of foreigners toward us. The more friendly they mean to be the more ludicrously prominent it becomes. They can never appreciate the immense amount of silent work that has been done here, making this continent slowly fit for the abode of man, and which will demonstrate itself, let us hope, in the character of the people." (from
This shows an interesting shift, from the perception pre-Civil War of the ability of the upper classes to condescend to the lower classes as a more-or-less good thing to something that is seen as a bad quality to have.

The things you learn, huh?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Gentleman

Image from
The Gentleman as a Steampunk Character Type is one of those fluid personalities that tends to blend with another archetype rather than stand on its own. Every other Steampunk Character Type can do the same -- there's nothing that says a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor can't also be an Adventurer, or a Suffragette, or a Savant, or a Rebel. However, when it comes to The Gentleman as an archetype, you're much more likely to see this personality in combination with another one.

A common thought is the Gentleman Adventurer -- a nobleman who travels the world righting wrongs and doing good deeds for the disaffected people of the world. One example of a Gentleman Adventurer is Othar Tryggvassen, a character in Phil and Kaja Foglio's Hugo-winning Girl Genius comic (I plug the Profs. Foglio because their comic is one of my all-time favorites). Othar has the distinct personality trait of also being kind of annoying to practically anyone he meets, despite the fact that he's convinced he's doing good works.

But anyway, my commentary about how brilliantly put-together Othar is as a character aside, the Gentleman as a Steampunk Character Type appears to be more of an overlay for a simple reason -- a character doesn't have to be born a Gentleman to act as one; the behavior that makes up the "standard" of being a Gentleman is easily translatable across primary character types.

What makes a gentleman though? In John Henry Cardinal Newman's 1852 work, The Idea of a University, the Gentleman is defined as someone who never inflicts pain, whether emotional, mental, or physical, on anyone that he comes into contact with. "He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. (Newman 208-9)."

The Gentleman's great concern then, according to Newman, is to make everyone feel at home in the space around him. He is affable, articulate, and generally focused on avoiding conflict wherever he can.
"He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. (Newman 209)"
It's interesting to note that, although anyone born into the nobility was automatically considered a "gentleman," the Character Type itself isn't limited to those of noble birth in fiction. Doctor Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories might qualify as a Gentleman, as does Lord Maccon from Gail Carriger's Soulless -- granted, Lord Maccon fails a bit in that he causes Alexia emotional pain on several occasions, but otherwise he more or less falls into the proper classification of the Character Type. Another example of a Gentleman from Carriger's novels is Professor Lyall, who as the Beta of Lord Maccon's pack probably makes a bit of a better example than his Alpha does. 

From older fiction, the character of Phileas Fogg slots nicely into the Gentleman role. He is non-abrasive, does not seek out conflict, and intends to make people -- particularly Aouda -- comfortable in whatever abode they may be. Fogg endeavors throughout his journey to keep calm and thus keep calm the people around him. I mentioned Fogg before, when it came to the Adventurer, but he also fits here under the Gentleman simply because of the way he perceives the world around him.

What other Gentleman can you think of Steampunk (or any other) fiction?

NOTE: If you're interested in reading the Newman text, here's the Google Books link:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Featured at SF Signal

"Featured" is kind of a strong word now that I think about it. But anyway, last week the folks at SF Signal put out a call for the Most Memorable Anti Heroes in SF/F to the Twitter-verse. Me being me, I decided to knock off a quick list of my favorite anti heroes from all the speculative fiction I've read since ... oh geez ... forevers?

The SF Signal crew then emailed me back saying they loved my list, and wanted me to include a brief paragraph for each selection plus a biography of little old me to include as part of their MIND MELD series.

So this morning, I log into Twitter and I see the following Tweet from @sfsignal:
#MindMeld: Memorable Anti-Heroes in SF/F w. Allen Steele, S. Andrew Swann, @LisaSpindler, @MattDelman: #fb
Of course I click on the link, and then I realize that they've put my list in among the likes of 3 award-winning authors, one of whom has won the Hugo twice, and a mega-prolific blogger in the form of Lisa Spindler.

Suffice to say, I ... umm ... kind of geeked out a little bit.

This is ignoring the fact that I adore SF Signal as a general rule, and the fact that they feature my Steampunk Character Type pieces in practically ever Friday SF Tidbits post since I started writing the things. So yeah ... how are all of you this morning?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Savant

In A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe portrays John Forbes Nash, Jr., a brilliant mathematician who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. This is an example of a character that I've termed The Savant, someone who might be absolutely brilliant in one area and yet have an equally as damaging flaw in another. 
Laurence Kim Peek (1951 to 2009), a Savant with
perfect photographic memory who was able
to recall the contents of 12,000 books.
He had severe motor function disabilities
(image from Historic Mysteries)

Someone who can do complex mathematical algorithms in his head but is unable to tie his shoes is one example; another is the incredible musician that lacks even basic social skills. It's the scientific and mathematical fields where this character type is seen most acutely -- an interesting side note is that a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor might be a Savant, but a Savant is not always a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor -- as those fields require extremely high-level brain function that can take from other parts of the brain.

From Historic Mysteries:
A Savant is someone possessing exceptional skill in a particular area, such as art, literature and mathematics. They are a rare breed; only 100 individuals recognized as Savants are alive today. But what is most interesting, is that half of all Savants are autistic, and the other half have some other type of mental disability, such as a brain injury or retardation.
In terms of fictional Savants, the mental or physical difficulties may or may not make an appearance. What might be the damning character flaw that shifts your hyper-intelligent character into Savant status may be something as simple as lack of social grace. If played to its logical extreme, you could have an exceptionally brilliant musician that refuses to talk to people because of difficulty relating. Talk about music, and they discourse for hours; talk about anything else and they clam up because they can't speak about anything else.

Characters that are engineers, scientists, and mathematically focused are especially prone to Savant status. In the more fantastic vein of Second-World Steampunk, you might also see a mage-scientist that has issues relating to people outside of his or her specific brand of high-level knowledge. A pure fantasy example would probably be Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series of novels; a more Steampunk choice could be Edward "Leviathan" Mallory from The Difference Engine, a brilliant paleontologist and explorer who nevertheless has difficulty dealing with people who don't conform to his worldview.

It's interesting to note that, in The Difference Engine, the word "Savant" is used to refer to the meritocracy that rules Britain. When you're a Savant in the Britain of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's seminal Steampunk novel, then you're part of the elite of the elite. This is an interesting way to use the highly scientific mind of the Savant to be sure, and something that would be very in keeping with the way a Savant character might view him or herself.

What fictional characters do you think qualify for Savant status?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Victorian Courtship Rituals, Or How Fanning Meant Flirting

The rules of courtship in Victorian England were many and varied. Since courtship and marriage was viewed primarily as a career move for young men rather than something done for love, the rituals took on excessive importance so as not to waste the time of anyone involved. Why would the young Lord Danforth pursue the eldest daughter of Baron Whistlefield if it meant he couldn't advance his own property holdings or his situation in Parliament?

I have a whole lot of commentary on this topic, but that's not the point of this post. Rather, it's to share the minimal freedom that upper class women had when it came to interacting with young, available men at social events. This freedom to "flirt," as it were, was limited to how the woman made use of her fan:

(Source: Literary Liaisons, Ltd, "Courting the Victorian Woman") 

Personally, I never knew that the different ways a lady used her fan meant different things. The proper courtship rituals of Victorian Britain are endlessly fascinating. Expect quite a few more posts on this area in the future. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Rebel

Along with the Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor, the Rebel is one of the quintessential Steampunk character types. The etymology of the word Steampunk, while a riff on the phrase "cyberpunk," is still tied directly to the rebellion against the status quo that Punk desires. To be "Punk," in fact, is to rebel against whatever system/government/social convention is currently in place.

There have been thousands of rebels throughout history; the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, the Sons of Liberty and others during the American Revolution, the leaders of the Glorious Revolution in Britain, Charles Babbage, Guy Fawkes, Ada Lovelace, Nelson Mandela, and so on and so forth. My naming the revolutions or people isn't a judgment on any other revolutionaries, merely a sampling of the type of person I'm talking about.

In fiction, the list is equally as long. One of the most famous Steampunk trilogies, A Nomad of the Time Streams, has the unique distinction of its author Michael Moorcock being a card-carrying anarchist. In Warlord of the Air, the first novel in the trilogy, main character Oswald Bastable begins the story as a loyal son of the British Empire before he slowly becomes a Rebel when he realizes how wrong things really are in the alternate world he's ended up in.

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters has Oliver, Missy, and the other "heroes" of the novel battling against the servants of Mama Engine, Grandfather Clock, and Baron Hume. Soulless by Gail Carriger has Alexia Tarabotti rebelling against convention while she seeks to help Lord Maccon and solve the mystery that plagues the werewolves and vampires of the United Kingdom.

Steampunk, some will argue, is about rebellion against the Empire in all its forms. The best Steampunks, these same people say, are the ones that reject the way the world is and battle to change it for the better. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville has Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a scientist that fills the role of rebel quite nicely once you look at him closely; The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia claims Mattie, the automaton main character, as a rebel against the world. Mattie is an emancipated automaton -- this is something that simply does not happen in the world of the novel. The fact that Mattie remains unharmed and successful is testament to the success of her rebellion.

Who is the rebel in Steampunk though? What type of person is he or she?

Well there are two kinds: the Rebel-as-Hero and the Rebel-as-Villain. The Rebel-as-Hero is someone who fights for a cause above all else. Sometimes that's to right a wrong, sometimes that's to move themselves up in the world against resistance, and sometimes that's because they rode into town and realized "wait a minute, that lord/king/baron/sheriff isn't treating his people right." The Rebel can be an Adventurer as well, but there's no guarantee that an Adventurer is a Rebel. A good example is Phileas Fogg, perhaps one of the most famous Adventurers in fiction, who does not waste any time on his trip around the world by rebelling against anything. He does save Aouda, but that's not a rebellion against her native culture. Rather, it's a simple rescue taking place throughout the course of the novel.

The Rebel-as-Villain is a bit trickier to tease out. This villain-rebel might use fear to make his point, is often mistake for a terrorist, and will use any means necessary to achieve his end goal. The rebel may have altruistic ideals at the beginning, but those quickly become subsumed under an overriding desire for revenge, anger at the establishment for a (sometimes incorrectly) perceived wrong, or even pain at something that happened in their past. The Rebel-as-Villain also makes common use of extreme violence in his acts. Guy Fawkes's plan to blow up Parliament in the 1600s is a good example of a common Rebel-as-Villain plan. They want to kill as many people as possible to prove their point. I'm not saying Guy Fawkes fit the bill of Rebel-as-Villain, mind you.

Nemo from the film
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"
Perhaps the most famous Rebel in Steampunk fiction is Captain Nemo. The Villain-Hero of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of those characters that almost defies description; he is a Mad Scientist, and a Rebel, and an Adventurer, and everything else about a Steampunk hero that writers strive to include.

From different perspectives, you can argue that Nemo is both a Rebel-as-Hero and a Rebel-as-Villain. He uses fear to get his point across; as the novel opens, Professor Pierre Aronnax is sought out to study the effects of an attack by a giant cetacean on several vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Nemo also battles the Empire to revenge himself for the failed Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 to 1859. We see Nemo in the guise of Rebel-as-Hero for his role in that rebellion, as the main thrust of that conflict was to expel the British from India. Nemo is also a Rebel-as-Hero because he gives aid to others rebelling against their masters -- in one case aiding the Greeks against the Ottoman Turks in the Cretan Revolt of 1866 to 1869.

Nemo fills the Rebel-as-Villain role primarily for his unrelenting desire to destroy the British Empire's power by any means necessary. He ruthlessly and silently attacks British warships in such a fashion as to kill everyone on board without being seen by ramming the vessels below the waterline. He spreads fear and terror throughout the Empire simply through existing. The sheer stories that are passed around about him spark speculation and terror among all the Empire's possessions.

The Rebel, whether as a Hero or as a Villain, is an important part of Steampunk fiction. There are many people who say that if there isn't a rebel character, then the story isn't really Steampunk. I don't know if I agree with this statement, as Steampunk has swiftly morphed into more of a Pulp-adventure genre than anything, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that Steampunk and Rebels go hand-in-hand.

What other Rebels can you think of in Steampunk?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Off Topic: Guest Post at Who's Your Gladys?

I'm filing this under "Off Topic" because it has nothing to do with Steampunk. For the past ten years, I've worked off-and-on in customer service and retail sales roles, something that I feel has made me much better customer when I'm in those situations. You want to find out the reasons why?

Then head on over to the prominent Customer Service blog called "Who's Your Gladys?" -- the owners of which have graciously decided to run a guest post by yours truly today.

Here's the link: -- let me know what you think!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

GUEST POST: The Asylum: A UK Steampunk Event in Lincoln

Alex Keller's debut novel Haywired, a steampunk fairytale, was released on 1 September in the UK by Mogzilla Books. Alex maintains a blog at, where he discusses Steampunk, the life of a writer, and other assorted items. You can purchase Haywired at the Mogzilla shop, Amazon UK, and at Waterstones. Its sequel, Rewired, is due out April 2011 in the UK. Haywired will be released to U.S. readers sometime in 2011.

The Asylum was the first Steampunk convention I'd attended and I had no idea what to expect. I've never really been one for conventions to be honest. I've nothing particularly against them, but I've never been a big fan of group things so I've avoided them like the plague. I've always preferred my own company rather than being stuck in a crowd, but I was genuinely pleasantly surprised by the Asylum. I had a really good time. It looks like I've made quite the mistake.

What first struck me were the costumes: they were incredible. The effort people had gone to was tremendous. I don't really know much about the Steampunk community and I thought that maybe a few people would really make the effort while the majority would just be in jeans and t-shirts with a slightly steampunky feel to them, but wow was I wrong. I wore a pair of brown trousers, a shirt, and a waistcoat, and I felt massively under-dressed. However, there was no ostracising because I hadn't gone to the lengths most others had. Every person I spoke to, and I mean everyone, was friendly and talkative.

Anyway, to keep this concise, there were a couple of things that really blew me away. First of all, people actually bought my book. This was AMAZING. I'm proud of Haywired and extremely happy with the reception it has received on the review circuit, but what I found incredible was that people, real flesh and blood people, were prepared to part with their hard-earned money to get a copy. And they even wanted me to scrawl something barely legible in it as well! It felt very strange being in this position but I'm delighted they wanted my signature, let alone the book itself.

The second thing that felt very strange was having Mr Robert Rankin on the stall next to me. I knew he was going to be there, but I thought he would be in some closed off area for him to perform whatever person magic he wished, not be sitting at the stall next to mine looking like an ordinary mortal. I have to admit, I didn't speak to him much as I was a bit star-struck, but he seemed like an incredibly nice guy. He and his wife got involved in all the events that were going on, and on the one occasion when I did pluck up enough courage to speak to him, he was very friendly.

I do come away with a few regrets though. As this was my first convention, I was a bit cautious. There was a ball on in the evening and I thought that might be a bit too much for me, but once I was there I was disappointed I hadn't signed up. On Sunday, everyone was saying it was great! Oh well, there's always next year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Alex has pictures of The Asylum up on his blog, Scroll down a bit and you can see a photo of Robert Rankin and a slideshow of other pictures Alex took.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Jacquard Loom -- Ancestor of the Computer

Joseph-Marie Jacquard
Charles Babbage is given a prominent place in the annals of Computer History, and rightly so. His Difference Engine, designed in the 1820s, would've been the first free-standing general use computer system had it ever been built. It's worth noting, however, that Babbage's machine wouldn't have been the first to use the system of punched cards that drove the mechanical computer. Rather, that honor belongs to the loom designed and patented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a Frenchman, in 1801.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard was born in Lyon, France in 1752 to a family of weavers. At the time, weaving the fine cloths in demand around the world was a tedious process that had been done by hand for generations. When Jacquard inherited his family's business, he realized that the labor cost of weaving the fabrics more or less destroyed any profit he could hope to make.

The profit was so minuscule on weaving, in fact, that Jacquard worked a separate job in a factory to make ends meet for a time. He began developing what would become the Jacquard loom prior to the French Revolution, during which time progress on the invention was stalled long enough to prevent the patent from being filed until 1804. The French government, realizing how important the Jacquard loom was, declared Jacquard's invention public property and assigned him a government pension and a set royalty on every machine produced. This seizure of the patent happened in 1806, two years after the patent was filed, and five years after Jacquard exhibited the loom in Paris.

The cantilever loom, an example
of the looms in common use
prior to the Jacquard loom.

(Image from the
Colonial Williamsburg website)
The Jacquard loom automated an important process in cloth weaving. Prior to this, a drawboy would inside the loom and lift or move a number of threads based on directions from the master weaver. When the shuttle passed through -- the flying shuttle was in use by this time, which made weaving easier -- the design would begin to appear where the master weaver wanted.

This process was prone to error, which was a two-fold reason for Jacquard to automate the weaving process. This isn't to say that other inventors hadn't already attempted the same thing Jacquard succeeded at. Fellow Lyon native Basile Bouchon developed a way to control a loom using punched paper tape similar to a organ in 1725; three years later, his assistant Jean-Baptiste Falcon made some improvements to the machine.

The year 1745 saw Jacques de Vaucanson (a renowned builder of automatons) developing a system of further automating the process in Bouchon's design. De Vaucanson's designs were ignored in his lifetime, however, and he died without the loom ever being fully produced.

An Anglican priest stationed at the cathedral in Lincolnshire, Edmund Cartwright, developed the power loom in 1784. The design had numerous flaws though, and it would take 40 years and several patented designs -- including in 1789 and 1792 -- before all the issues with the loom's function were resolved.

Regardless of the innovations that came before, the Jacquard loom was the first to make consistent and effective use of a punch card system to automate the weaving process. The loom was initially opposed by silk weavers throughout France; the weavers were under the impression that the Jacquard loom's automation would make them redundant, thus eliminating an entire cottage industry.

Jacquard loom on display at the
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
Photo taken by George H. Williams in July 2004.
Contrary to that belief, however, the Jacquard loom allowed thousands upon thousands more yards of fabric to be produced across Europe in ever-increasing amounts. That there were more than 11,000 Jacquard looms in use throughout France by 1812 shows quite clearly that the advantages far outweighed any possible negatives.

The function of the loom itself is striking in its simplicity. A roll of punched cards is placed in the feeder, which runs beneath the hooks in the loom. The hooks remain in place until a hole in the punched card passes by, and then move into action pressing another thread into place. From Wikipedia:
Each hole in the card corresponds to a "Bolus" hook, which can either be up or down. The hook raises or lowers the harness, which carries and guides the warp thread so that the weft will either lie above or below it. The sequence of raised and lowered threads is what creates the pattern. Each hook can be connected via the harness to a number of threads, allowing more than one repeat of a pattern. A loom with a 400-hook head might have four threads connected to each hook, resulting in a fabric that is 1600 warp ends wide with four repeats of the weave going across.
The heavy card-stock common to punched cards was first developed because of the Jacquard loom; high-volume Jacquard looms even made use of metal cards so they programs wouldn't fall to pieces after excessive use. A very interesting facet of the Jacquard loom that makes it distinct among machines using punched cards is the fact that the cards themselves are strung together and fed along a cylinder rather than being placed through the machine one at a time.

Close-up view of the
8 × 26 hole punched cards—
one card per pick (weft) in the fabric.
Each hole in the card relates to one hook in the mechanism of the machine. The Jacquard loom's success comes not so much in the mechanization of the process of weaving, but rather that the punched cards allow for the same design to be woven over and over again without error.

As more Jacquard looms were built and sent to factories throughout Europe, more designs were programmed into the punched card system, and fabric became cheaper and cheaper to weave. The errors of the pre-Jacquard loom weaving industry could be said to have almost disappeared, and the lack of profit one could expect from becoming a weaver also slowly diminished. If a single man could weave 10 yards of cloth in the time it used to take him to weave one or two, then the Jacquard loom already made its mark in the economics of the Industrial Revolution.

As for the history of computers, the success of the Jacquard loom is what led Charles Babbage to develop his Engines in the 1820s and 1830s based on the punched-card model. In fact, Babbage's punched cards were also attached to one another by small straps, similar to the way the punched cards of the Jacquard loom were attached to one another. It wouldn't be until Herman Hollerith developed his punched cards for the 1890 U.S. Census that individual punched cards came around into popular use.

That the Jacquard loom is a Steampunk device is in little doubt. Mechanical computer? Check. Punched card system set in a language of 0 (no hole) and 1 (hole)? Check. Possibility to have mechanized looms clacking along while steam power sends the flying shuttle whizzing back and forth through the mechanism? Check. Already the possibilities for a scene in a Steampunk textile factory are very interesting. But that's just my view.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pictures of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations (1851)

In lieu of a honest-to-goodness post on The Great Exhibition of 1851, which will be forthcoming, I'm going to wow you with some sketches published in The Illustrated London News during the months of the Exhibition itself in 1851 (all images are from; scanned by Philip V. Allingham):

[India] Sculpture displays in front of the Indian Pavillion. The Great Exhibition of 1851.
Caption from The Illustrated London News.
Beating from the Chase — Indian Shawls — Kincob Silk — Fine Dacca Muslins: piece of 10 yards, 10 pounds, &c. — Embroidered Scarfs. Satan tempting Eve — The Jealousy of Medea — Satan Vanquished by the Archangel Michael. Marble Statue of Victory (Bauch, of Berlin); purchased by her Majesty — Indian Arms and Armour.

Grand Panorama of the Great Exhibition of 1851 — Portion of the South Transept from The Illustrated London News
[France] No. II. — South-East Portion of the Nave from The Illustrated London News.
Grand Panorama of the Great Exhibition (4) from The Illustrated London News.
Statue, "The Canadian Indian at her Child's Grave" — Porcelain — Framed Mirrors — Flannels — Sail-Cloths — Mixed Fabrics — Linens — Statue, "Eve" — Busts of King and Queen of the Belgians — Statue, "Lady and Dove" — Velvet Pile Carpet — Saddlery — Wood Carvings — Geert's "[?]." — "Madonna" in marble — "Lion in Love" — "The Broken Drun," marble — [. . . ] Stuffs — Cloths — Leather — Minerals — Earthware — Tapestry.

Agriculturalists at the Exhibition from The Illustrated London News (19 July 1851): 101.
"He finds it very hot; but believes they say it is hotter in the gallery; and wonders why Mr. Paxton don't find some means of cooling the air, icing the fountains, or driving a cold blast through the organs, or something of that sort."