Steam Powered Robotics: Mr. Steam Man

The steam engine, however viable (it is), has become an anachronism in retro future fantasies. Of course, the steam engine was quite popular up until about the 1940s, when the diesel engine became de rigueur due to economics; diesel engines were cheaper to operate. That was then. The steam engine could still make a comeback, if consumers could be convinced that the technology is neither dangerously explosive, and neither is it tediously slow to get going for the morning commute. Meanwhile, the steam engine gives rise to Victorian images of women in corsets and men in coattails, wearing goggles in their magic flying vehicles — also, machines using intricate clockwork as well as steam. Unless the fashion changes considerably in the future, nobody will be wearing goggles or corsets in their steam powered hybrid cars. But, honestly, just as steampunk authors do, I’m imagining a future which doesn’t exist…or doesn’t yet exist.

When looking at the steamy past and all its magical elements  (the past holds a kind of magic, living as it does in mental time travel) what captures my imagination the most is Mr. Steam Man. Yes, Mr. Steam Man. He was invented by one Mr. Dederick in 1868. In reality, he was simply a steam engine cloaked as a man, who could pull along a phaeton. The engine was given a humanesque appearance, apparently, so as not to scare the horses that would be pulling along the usual carriages dashing up and down the streets. Mr. Steam Man had a driver, of course, who could turn the contraption or alter its speed. In the book image below, the driver appears to be holding reins — as if a steam engine would need reins. What Mr. Steam Man did require was steam pressure that was built up through the use of coal. Mr. Dederick made a number of fancy claims about his invention, e.g. that it could step over small objects in the roadway and that it could cover a mile in only a couple of minutes. The inventor also had plans to create a steam-powered horse, to be used for farming, etc. Sadly, his invention never really took off.

As if to codify steam power into the popular imagination, however, the author Edward S. Ellis went ahead and wrote a sci fi book about a steam man. In the novel, a crazy inventor by the name of Johnny Brainerd invents a rotund steam man to pull him along into a world of adventures. You can find a copy of The Huge Hunter or, the Steam Man of the Prairies at Project Gutenberg.




  1. I watched an anime series called Heat Guy J. The titular character was an android private I, and when he ran around/fought/shot too much he would have to let off steamy hot air from his body. This post immediately reminded me of that…although I don’t think he ever was a rickshaw runner.

  2. The reins are necessary. Some original iron-wheeled steam plow tractors were not operated by a steering wheel, but by a reins mechanism.

    It was easier for farmers to go from steering a team of horses to steering a head of steam if they didn’t have to learn a new way of turning.

    In fact, Eimco gas tractors had a reins option much later on. I am not sure why they did that, other than novelty.

      1. Found another one: the Samson Iron Horse. It “ends drudgery and brings pleasure, profit and efficiency to the farm.”

        “Drives with Reins – The Samson Iron Horse drives with lines exactly like a team — pull back and it backs up; … Just like driving horses.”

        From the brochure. List price $630.

        My guess is that it is from after the Great War, before 1920.

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