Novel Science: Steampunk and the history of prosthetics
Reimagining the past, now with 40% more gears
Joanna Thompson • February 1, 2021
Science fiction, brought to reality. [Credit: Niko McCarty | CC BY-NC-ND]
It’s more than a sci fi sub-genre: for some, it’s an aesthetic, a lifestyle, even a form of protest. Steampunk reimaginings allow authors (and readers) to envision an Industrial Revolution free of fossil fuels, or a world in which amputees widely use steam-powered prosthetics. Few steampunk novels capture the genre’s revolutionary spirit like Nisi Shawl’s 2016 novel, Everfair.
Everfair posits a world in which native Congolese people develop steam and clockwork engines before their European oppressors during the Congo Free State period. With this massive technological advantage, they’re able to expel Belgian King Leopold’s invading forces.
For those unfamiliar with the Congo Free State, it was a bit of colonial history made especially horrific by the Belgians’ penchant for cutting off people’s hands. This tendency becomes a plot point in the novel. Many leaders of the resistance are Congolese people who have their severed limbs replaced with shiny steam and clockwork prostheses — some of them even sport extra features, like flashlights, knives and tiny crossbows.
Would it be possible to make a steam-powered prosthetic arm? And what did prosthetics look like in the early 1900s, anyway?
Artificial limbs have a surprisingly long history. The oldest known prosthesis is a wood-and-leather toe affixed to the desiccated foot of a 3,000 year old Egyptian mummy. Jointed prosthetics debuted in the 1500s, and by the 1800s some fairly sophisticated mechanisms were in use.
Commercially available Victorian prosthetics, like the Carnes artificial arm, feature a series of interlocking gears and levers that open and close the digits when pulled. Doing so makes a noise very similar to cocking a gun, which I can only imagine was a lot of fun at parties. (“Is Charles spoiling for a gunfight or a handshake? Who knows!”)
While there don’t seem to have been any actual steam-powered prosthetics in the Victorian era, the idea was certainly floating around, as evidenced by an 1890s drinking tune called “The Steam Arm.” The lyrics tell of a Waterloo vet who lost an arm in combat only to have it replaced with a steam-powered one: “He went at once — strange it may seem —/ To have one made to work by steam/ For a ray of hope began to gleam/ That force of arms would win her esteem/ Ri too ral, etc.”
However, a true steampunk arm might still be on the table. In 2007, researchers at Vanderbilt University developed a functional prosthetic that runs on — you guessed it — steam. A miniaturized rocket motor inside the arm incinerates hydrogen peroxide, producing steam that quickly travels through a series of tubes and valves to generate motion.
Like any alternate history tale, the events of Everfair didn’t happen as depicted in the novel. But were they *technically* possible?
It’s hard to say for sure. There is certainly evidence that people were thinking about steam prosthetics in the Victorian era (Ri too ral, etc.). And, as the Vanderbilt team demonstrated, steam can make a viable prosthetic power source. However, the fact that 19th-century inventors never developed these ideas indicates that a steam arm would have been too costly, too difficult, or too dangerous to realistically manufacture.
Thankfully, we have steampunk to imagine it for us.