Firsts: The Steam Man of the Prairies was the first robot in literature

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Jan 11, 2018

Long before L. Frank Baum wrote about a lovable tin woodsman in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and decades before mechanical marching machines tramped across London in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, a steam-driven phenomenon became the world's first mechanized human in the 1868 novella The Steam Man of the Prairies.

Initially appearing in Irwin's American Novels #45 at 10 cents a pop, The Steam Man of the Prairies was written by historian and biographer Edward S. Ellis. The story represents not only one of the first American science fiction novels, but also the earliest example of an autonomous mechanical man in literature. Ellis famously wrote frontier adventure novels not just under his own name but under dozens of pen names as well, as was the custom of the times, making it difficult even today to ascertain the entire catalog of his work.

Invented by young dwarf Johnny Brainerd, the Steam Man chugged along via a bellyful of heated water and was controlled by a handful of reins attached to its levers and valves. Just the thought of this steadfast steel machine striding down a dusty country lane, sometimes at great speeds, must have been a frightful apparition in the minds of mid-19th-century readers.

Here's how Ellis' magnificent metal man was described in the original dime novel text:

"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 eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made 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 baseball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed differed from a human being.

"In the knapsack were the valves, buy 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 boiler.

"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."

The hat-wearing, valve-equipped automaton proved to be so popular with readers that its origin story was reprinted in a number of period publications. But the public was insatiable in its demand for more stories of the mighty Steam Man, which resulted in three sequels written by a different author, Harry Enton. In Enton's sequels, a fictitious inventor, Frank Reade Sr. (and, later, his son), constructs a Mark II version of Ellis' beloved Steam Man, featuring several improvements to the original design.

Not only were other writers inspired by Ellis' Steam Man, but plenty of fictional inventors also took up the challenge to create their own copycat automatons. These included Professor Archibald Campion's Boilerplate, a barrel-chested mechanical oddity first on public display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Boilerplate is actually the faux robot created by Portland's Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett in their fantastic alt-history account, Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel.

Credit: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett

Through the decades, artists and authors have drawn inspiration from this Victorian-age marvel that has since influenced science fiction and fantasy writers, filmmakers, and illustrators.

In 1982, one of the creators inspired by Ellis' work, Disney Imagineer Tom Scherman, built his incredible Iron Man to potentially incorporate into a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at the yet-to-be-built Paris Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. This was a non-functioning prototype that took on a Jules Verne-like steampunk aesthetic and, no doubt, looked to the stirring Steam Man novels of yesteryear. A Disney TV pilot centered around Captain Nemo and the Nautilus had even been proposed featuring Scherman's titanic robot that would pull supplies via a wooden cart, but it was never realized.

Credit: John Patrick Burke

The Steam Man even inspired a Dark Horse Comics mini-series of the same name that ran from 2015 to 2016. Written by Joe R. Lansdale with art by Mark Alan Miller, The Steam Man featured a colossal steam-powered war machine that battled invading Martian marauders and armies of killer albino apes.

The advent of the monster steam-powered machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution gave rise to more artistic visions of animated metal men, the precursors to today's intelligent robots, cyborgs, and androids. The results of this imagination can be seen in Hollywood films, TV shows, comics, video games, and countless other toys and novelties.

It's satisfying to know that Ellis' impressive Steam Man, born 150 years ago, has spurred the imaginations of roboticists, scientists, and engineers for generations and will continue giving life to even more fascinating artificial humanoids.

Would you hitch your cart to one of these crazy smoking contraptions and go for an afternoon ride?