Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Steam Arm

Via the SF weblog Jesse Nevins writes about The First Cyborg Horror Story: "The Steam Arm" Ballad of 1834-35.  It tells of a Waterloo veteran who lost an arm and has it replaced with a steam one, which proves uncontrollable.

"The Steam Arm" features the (arguably) first cyborg in popular fiction and the (arguably) first use of the possessed-limb motif which would become common in 20th century horror fiction and film. More importantly, it's an early work of science fiction horror from a time in which horror fiction was still separating itself from its Gothic roots. The contemporary setting and concerns of "The Steam Arm" are a very great distance from the Gothic setting and tropes of much 1830s horror fiction, and its science fictional content makes it possibly unique.

Having seen Boilerplate: History of a Victorian Era Robot, I mildly suspected a hoax. But no: you can confirm for yourself its existence in contemporary sources such as the 1836 Every Body's Album (page 172). There's a scholarly paper by Kirstie Blair, ‘The Steam Arm’: Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song, in the very interesting online journal Neo-Victorian Studies ("a peer-reviewed, inter-disciplinary eJournal dedicated to the exploration of the contemporary fascination with re-imagining the nineteenth century and its varied literary, artistic, socio-political and historical contexts in both British and international frameworks").

The Steam Arm's unruly behaviour strongly reminds me of the similar scenario in Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero, where the hero Bill, having lost his arm in battle, gets a new one (of the wrong colour and handedness) grafted from his dead comrade Tembo.

The sergeant stared at Bill's mismatched hands, his eyes flickering back and forth quickly from one to the other. "Where did you get that hand, trooper? Speak up! I know that hand."

"It belonged to a buddy of mine, and I have the arm that goes with it too."

Anxious to get onto any subject other than his military crimes, Bill held the hand out for the sergeant to look at. But he was horrified when the fingers tensed into a rockhard fist, the muscles bunched on his arm and the fist flew forward to catch the first sergeant square on the jaw and knocked him backward off his chair ass over applecart. "Sergeant!" Bill screamed, and grabbed the rebellious hand with his other and forced it, not without a struggle, back to his side.

There is, by the way, a real neurological disorder called alien hand syndrome. Nor, also by the way, are steam-powered prosthetics beyond possibility : see The RegisterUS boffins demo steampunk artificial arm - and the Vanderbilt house magazine article, which has video footage of the scary steam-spitting prototype of this arm (it would suit Mean Machine Angel) powered by the catalysed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.

Addendum: the 1913 Reminiscences of Henry Clay Barnabee; being an attempt to account for his life, with some excuses for his professional career (Internet Archive ID reminiscencesofh00barniala) contains an embellished version of The Steam Arm that emphasises the cyborg aspect of the story and ends with the arm killing its owner.

The Patent Arm

There was a man in sixty-four
Who hung a shingle at his door :
"Ye who would patent arms secure,
Come buy, come buy, beg alms no more."
Ri tu, di nu, Ri tu, di ni nu,
Ri tu, di nu, ri na.

It was an arm of curious twist
Muscles to work, and supple wrist,
A bona-fide five-fingered fist
No foe when doubled could resist.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Inside this arm of rare design
Was hid a dollar steam engine,
Which speed and safety both combine,
And got red hot on spirits of wine.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Into his shop there came one day
A chap whose arm was shot away;
Who looked it, o'er, then cried "Hooray!
With your patent arm I'll march away."
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

His aid the tickled genius lent,
To the soldier' stump 'twas quickly bent;
A valve was ope'd by way of vent,
A screw top turned, and away it went.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

"Aha, she goes!" cried the patentee,
"A finer arm you ne'er did see;
Such a cure deserves a noble fee,
Five hundred in gold pay unto me."
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Said not a word the soldier chap,
The genius got from his arm a rap
Which came so like a thunder clap,
What could he do but quickly "drap"?
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Out of the house the soldier flew,
Seeking in vain to turn the screw
And let off steam, which stronger grew,
And sent the arm in a circle new.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

The people scooted from the street,
The horses fled in wild retreat;
A big policeman came to meet
The arm he caught, and changed his beat.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Then came a squad on capture bent,
Over his head a noose was sent,
Fast pinioned to a cell he went,
To let off steam, perhaps repent.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Once in the cell, they set him free,
Up came the arm, and down went three;
He banged them 'till they couldn't see,
Beat down the walls and fled in glee.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

He hurried home, 'twas getting late,
His loving spouse stood at the gate;
To his arms she sprang with joy elate,
His arm sprang too, and broke her pate.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

He turned the screw; with an awful whack
Round came the arm, on another tack,
And flew in his face, till alas! alack!
It laid him out flat on his back.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

A crowner's jury quickly roped,
The fallen soldier's boiler ope'd,
And when they found the steam had sloped,
Decided he was telescoped.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

And from that time the rumor ran
A skeleton to walk began;
Who threw out his arm with a lengthy span,
'Twas the ghost of the patent arm-y man.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Addendum 2: This topic vaguely reminded me of something, and I just recalled what: one of the nastier cyborgs in SF, Prince Red, who is the antagonist in Samuel R Delany's excellent Nova. Apart from being a "spoilt psychopath", Prince is particular embittered by lacking an arm, which doesn't permit him to have a full set of the neural sockets that are ubiquitous in the future world Delany depicts. As the novel proceeds, he has a series of more and more dangerous prosthetic arms (one of which scars the hero in a fight) until he turns up uninvited at a party and threatens the guests.

At the sand-pool he stopped, stooped between the twins, scooped his false hand into the sand, and made a fist. "Ahhhh ..." His breath, even with parted lips, hissed. He stood now, opened his fingers.

Dull glass fell smoking to the rug. Idas pulled his feet back sharply. Lynceos just blinked faster.
"Consider it a demonstration of my love of strength and beauty. Do you see?" He kicked the shards of hot glass across the rug. “Bah! Too many impurities to rival Murano. I came here—"
By the great window, Ruby picked up the ugly lumps of glass. She examined them, seeming unconscious of the conversation. But Prince held out his hand. Immediately, she placed them on his palm. She was following their words closely.

"I wonder," Prince said, looking at the fragments, "if this will work." His fingers closed. "Do you insist on reopening this feud between us?"
Prince’s fist began to quiver. His hand opened. Bright crystals were shot with internal blue light. "Heptodyne quartz. Are you familiar with it? Mild pressure on impure glass will often produce—I say ‘mild.’ That’s a geologically relative term, of course."

How such an arm could be powered isn't explained, but I assume it's by the superheavy nucleotide "Illyrion" that powers other hardware in Nova

Addendum 2, Feb 13th 2012. From the Daily Mail: Hands up who wants one? Fan proves you really can 'make anything' with Lego after creating prosthetic arm and hand.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Lets have a big hand for a stellar post. Handy information for the man who has everything, except.