THE STEAM MAN OF THE PRAIRIES (1868) – Written by Edward Sylvester Ellis. Before the Frank Reade stories came this work that is often hailed as the first Dime Novel with a science fiction theme.
Ellis seems to have been inspired by the REAL and well-known Newark Steam Man built by Zadoc P Dederick in January of 1868. That Steam Man was built strictly to pull carts and wagonloads up and down the street. Its human appearance was just a novelty.
Back to Ellis’ novel: In Saint Louis lives Johnny Brainerd, a 15 year old dwarf with a hunchback, who has a brilliant mind in his misshapen body. After a long line of somewhat modest inventions Johnny constructs a human-shaped Steam Man that stands 9 feet tall. It has long legs with spiked feet, has the boilers in its chest, the firepot in its stomach and lets excess steam vent from its hat. (Dederick’s Newark Steam Man also wore a top hat.) The creation’s nose serves as its whistle, like on a tea kettle.
Johnny’s Steam Man can run at 60 miles per hour and is strong enough to haul a wagon filled with coal plus the wagon’s driver. A prospector called Baldy Bicknell arrives in Saint Louis and decides the Steam Man would be ideal for him and his friends, Ethan Hopkins and Mickey McSquizzle.
He, Ethan and Mickey discovered a rich gold vein out west but keep getting harassed by Native American warriors who want them to leave. Baldy left his two friends to continue holding off the American Indians with their weapons while he went back East for help. He enlists Johnny Brainerd and his Steam Man in their cause.
Our dwarfish hunchback and his creation accompany Baldy back to his and his friends’ gold claim, where the Steam Man succeeds in driving off the Native American raiders. Johnny also uses his mechanical man to chase buffalo in yet another outdated element of the story.
The Steam Man also runs afoul of grizzly bears and a freakishly huge, almost Paul Bunyan-sized hunter and outlaw. By the time those side adventures have run their course, the Native Americans return with a strategy to kill the gold miners and Johnny once and for all.
The Indians manage to trap Johnny, the miners and the Steam Man in a box canyon which they seal with boulders. The boulders prove too heavy for the Steam Man to move and his legs are not constructed in such a way that lets him climb over things.
With no other way out, Johnny lets his creation build up steam to the point of exploding, thus allowing him and the miners to escape and foiling their Native American attackers.
In 1876 Edward Sylvester Ellis saw Harry Enton leapfrog his and his story’s success by utilizing its ideas in much more creative and dramatic ways in the Frank Reade series of stories, beginning with Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains.
Ellis’ original tale certainly deserves to be remembered for its historical significance but it’s tough to deny the comparative lack of imagination he showed with the adventures of his own Steam Man.
If filmmakers ever get tired of making superhero movies, assorted Steam-Punk stories like this would be ideal for audiences. Just change the Native American attackers to bloodthirsty bandits if that aspect of the tale gets in the way.
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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