Guest blogger the Doctor of Phlogiston is back.
He’s my resident steampunk philosopher.
This little posting is a tilt at the one windmill that I forgot last time I visited here – that ol’ steampunk favourite, the Land Leviathan. This staple of steampunk has been hanging about ever since they first turned up in HG Well’s ‘the Land Ironclads’ in 1903. We happily accept them in fiction, but how much of an actual possibility were they?
Victorian-era technology could certainly produce whopping big things capable of movement on land. Prime amongst them was the long-distance express steam engine, of which there were rather a lot of different sorts. My personal favourite is the Great Northern Railway’s Stirling Single class of 1870-1895. To my eye it is a perfect example of the aesthetic that sits at the core of steampunk. A Stirling Single weighed about 40 tonnes and could better 80mph on a good rail line while pulling 200 tonnes or more of train. This all well and good, but move the train away from its purpose engineered railway and it’ll sink up to its axles as it crosses the lawn. A purely railway design and technology approach just wasn’t capable of meeting the challenge of roadless ground.
It wasn’t until the early part of World War 1 that something approaching a real Land Leviathan came into existence, and it was the British that did it. We know these devices today as tanks. The early history of the tank is complex and fascinating, with rivalries between different arms of the British Military and a bunch of heavy machinery firms vying for yummy big military contracts. Even Winston Churchill was there, with his naval buddies and their Landship Committee (a most evocative name, if ever there were). The first production tank, the Mark 1, appeared in 1916 and about 30 of them were there at the tank’s combat debut at the Battle of the Somme. The Germans called them the Devil’s Chariots, and fair enough too.
Those early tanks were fearsome. They were also uniformly slow, fatally unreliable, intolerably noisy, useless in swampy conditions (like, for instance, most of the land between our trenches and theirs) and they were fairly easily disabled. It was almost as dangerous to be inside one as it was outside. Also, by leviathan standards, they really weren’t all that big- most early tanks were around the 25 to 35 tonne range and were narrow enough to be transported by rail (a useful thing considering most First World War tanks couldn’t manage 10 miles per hour flat-out and had an effective range of less than 50 miles). They were flawed, but still good enough to give the British and their allies a tactical edge. The presence of the Royal Tank Corps battalions at the Battle of Amiens in August of 1918 helped break the trench war deadlock and turn the war. Admittedly, of the over 500 tanks deployed, less than ten were still fit for service four days later…
So the land ironclads actually became reality within a couple of decades of their first appearance in fiction. I vaguely recall that HG Wells was given some credit for it too. They’re not the immense roving cities or giant steam robots our literature currently portrays them as, certainly, but still a major achievement of late-Victorian and Edwardian technology. And, as a closing remark to those that say ‘yes, but they’re not steam powered!’- a few prototypes were, but it quickly became apparent that driving around in slow moving iron box with a boiler simmering away at well over 100psi right underneath you while your opponents take a few cracks at you with some very big guns was just too dangerously silly to consider. Even for the British Military.
High praise for the whole series.
Quote of the Day:
Balderdash (n.): A rapidly receding hairline.