Steampunk Inventions: The Steam Man of the 19th Century

Steampunk is a world of fiction and science inspired by the Victorian era. It’s a place of novels, sci-fi movies and games, where scientists exceed the limits of technology to bring forward their most bizarre and genius inventions. What if such inventions were real, though? What if there was a scientist brave (and crazy) enough to try and break the limits of reality and technology?

For instance, it’s difficult to prove if the stories of the Steampunk robots born in the 19th century are true. Nevertheless, it is still curious to track these stories and contemplate on their possible existence. Check out the story of Zadoc Dederick and his Steampunk robot.

Zadoc Dederick – An Ambitious American Inventor

Born in 1849, Dederick was a machinist in Newark, New Jersey, who worked for a patent attorney. Together with Isaac Grass, he worked on developing a complex “steampunk carriage” that could be pulled by a man-like machine running on steam power.

In Dederick’s world, horses could be substituted with machines, such that can cover long distances and pull heavier weight without ever getting tired. While his ambition was tremendously expensive and difficult to engineer, he did not give up on his dream which led to the creation of the first and closest version to a steampunk robot: the “Steam Man”.

Dederick’s initial plan was to come up with a perpetual motion machine to power his invention but finally, he realized that steam power would be a much more plausible and practical option.

The Steam Man: Cost and Design

The Steam Man Presented in a Popular Science Monthly Magazine
The Steam Man Presented in a Popular Science Monthly Magazine

The Steam Man prototype was created and patented in 1868 in Newark, NJ. Its design and manufacture cost approximately $2000, equivalent to about $39,458 in 2020.

The steam giant was 7.9ft (2.4m) tall and weighed 500 pounds (227kg). All the essential components were well-hidden in order to recreate a human-like shape. The Steam Man had a head, a body and legs.

The furnace and boiler acted as a body and were covered by a large coat. The stovepipe had the shape of a hat and the steam whistle was located in the mouth. The legs were exposed and ran on steam power.

Additionally, Dederick and Grass designed a two-wheel carriage, which was attached to the Steam Man by iron bars, and served to accommodate passengers.

The Steam Man was supposed to pull heavy weight and walk on irregular surfaces. Due to the high cost, however, no proper tests were ever run leading to concerns and doubts about the invention’s reliability and safety.

The Fate of the Steam Man

The Steam Man was first exhibited in New York, then in other cities like Chicago and St. Louis. The high production cost, however, prevented sufficient testing of the prototype. As a result, the insurance companies who organized the exhibitions continued to raise concerns about the safety and proper functionality of the machine. For example, the steam giant wasn’t allowed to run at full speed.

Did the Steam Man actually work? 

The press of the time provided contradictory information but supposedly, Steam Man did work, that is to say, it worked in ideal conditions. It struggled on cobblestones and uneven areas. Therefore, on most occasions, it was exhibited suspended off the ground by a sling, due to safety requirements imposed by the insurers.

Did Dederick and Grass Produce Other Steam Men?

Even if the prototype cost $2000 to develop, Dederick believed he could lower the production cost to $300. Alas, his belief was shattered and mass-production of his creation never came to fruition.

What Happened to the Steam Man?

The fate of the Steam Man remains a mystery. It is believed that the machine was dismantled or lost in a fire at a museum in New York but there is no factual proof.

Steam Man in a Steampunk World

While the Steam Man was not a commercial success and did not change the world, it did trigger the imagination of authors and fans of the steampunk genre. One of the best-known examples is the novel book The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis.

Beadle's American Novel No. 45, August 1868, featuring "The Steam Man of the Prairies", Source: Wikipedia
Beadle’s American Novel No. 45, August 1868, featuring “The Steam Man of the Prairies”, Source: Wikipedia

The mysterious story of the giant steampunk robot inspires curiosity and creativity. It makes us question how much fiction there is to reality and how bizarre and peculiar reality is after all.

The beautiful part of Steampunk, nowadays, is that you don’t need to be an extraordinary engineer or scientist to come up with a steampunk idea. Check out some much more doable and creative steampunk ideas for your home.

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