This Is Not the Droid You’re Looking For

A long time ago (in 1868)  in a galaxy close, close to our own (okay, it is our own) a young inventor created a marvelous mechanical man. Our teenage whiz is Johnny Brainerd and the story is The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Ellis.

Edward Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies.  New York: American Novel Publishing Co., [1868?]. Rosenbach DN 52

Steam Man is often credited as the first science-fiction dime novel and a trail blazer in the inventor genre of adventures. The steam man itself isn’t exactly a robot, but a locomotive-like engine in human form that can pull a carriage. Science fiction is always a commentary on the real world of its creators and this story clearly reflects the transformative power of the railroad, the world-altering mechanical marvel of its day.

Here’s a full description of the contraption, taken from the first chapter of the novel (all quotations are from this transcribed version on Wikisource): 

It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the
‘stove-pipe hat,’ which was fashioned after the common order of felt
coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was
made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eves, and a
tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was trade to
answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the
chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a
large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms,
like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered
with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball players.
The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running,
at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from
a human being.

In the knapsack were the valves, by which the steam or water was
examined. In front was a painted imitation of a vest, in which a door
opened to receive the fuel, which, together with the water, was carried
in the wagon, a pipe running along the shaft and connecting with the

The lines which the driver held controlled the course of the steam
man; thus, by pulling the strap on the right, a deflection was caused
which turned it in that direction, and the same acted on the other side.
A small rod, which ran along the right shaft, let out or shut off the
steam, as was desired, while a cord, running along the left, controlled
the whistle at the nose.

In describing his hero’s invention of the steam man Ellis dwells on the challenge of making a machine that can walk, but eventually the steam
man is ” brought as nearly perfect as it was possible to bring a thing
not possessing human intelligence.” It can make 60 miles an hour along
railway tracks or 30 miles per hour on a normal road,which is “the highest rate at which [Brainerd] believed it possible for a
wagon to be drawn upon land with any degree of safety.”

The steam man is taken out west the frighten Indians away from a gold mining operation, which works until the Indians become familiar with the machine. At the end of the story, as the miners and Johnny Brainerd try to return home they are trapped in a ravine by wily Indians who build a wall of boulders that the steam man cannot scale. In order to escape, Brainerd runs the steam man at full speed into the obstacle, which causes the steam man’s boiler to explode like a bomb:

The shock of the explosion was terrible. It was like the bursting of an
immense bomb-shell, the steam man being blown into thousands of
fragments, that scattered death and destruction in every direction.
Falling in the very center of the crouching Indians, it could but make a
terrible destruction of life, while those who escaped unharmed, were
beside themselves with consternation.

As the Indians are stunned by the carnage, the whites scramble up the ravine, steal some Indian horses, and make it to the Missouri River. The the original steam man is no more, but the author reassures us that:

With the large amount of money realized from his western trip, Johnny
Brainerd is educating himself at one of the best schools in the
country. When he shall have completed his course, it is his intention to
construct another steam man, capable of more wonderful performances
than the first.

So let our readers and the public generally be on the lookout.

The Steam Man of the Prairies was first issued in 1868 and the Rosenbach has a copy of this “Beadle’s American Novels” version. Although the original story was subsequently reprinted, Ellis did not actually write a sequel. However, a competing dime-novel publisher commissioned Henry Cohen to write a knock-off version entitled Steam Man of the Plains, starring the inventor “Frank Reade,” and the Reade version went on to have several sequels, including one about a steam horse.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster at the Rosen-Blog.