The Wonderful Machine Age – The Autogyro

Technology has been one of the hallmarks setting humans apart from other life forms on this planet. From the primitive flint hand axe to the satellites we don’t even think about that make modern worldwide communication possible, humans have used technology to make up for our physical limitations and to improve where we live and how we live.

Ever since we saw a bird fly, we’ve wanted to do likewise. We dreamed of flight and put it in our myths. We flew in stories long before any human achieved liftoff. Kites and balloons were our baby steps. Then the airship ruled our imaginations. On the eve of World War II fixed-wing, heavier-than-air passenger aircraft crossed the Atlantic. Even if the Hindenburg had not burned, the airship had been rendered obsolete by the Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat in 1939.

The Second World War saw the perfection of the helicopter, the building of the long-range heavy bomber, and the invention of the jet, as well as the invention of the long-range ballistic missile. Suddenly, in 1945, such things as balloons, blimps, and rigid airships seemed nothing more than relics of the past.

The balloon has been relegated to hot-air sightseeing excursions, for the most part. The blimp has been reduced to a novel sightseeing experience or eye-catching advertising. There continues to be talk of lighter-than-air heavy lifters for long-distance cargo hauling, but they continue to remain the stuff of dreams.

However, one of the dinosaurs is making a true comeback. Namely, the autogyro. An autogyro? What’s that? At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s an airplane that uses an unpowered rotor instead of wings to achieve lift.

Juan de la Cierva wanted an airplane that could fly safely at low speed. To accomplish his desire, he invented the autogyro. The first successful flight was on 9 January 1923 in Madrid. Below is a picture of the first Cierva autogyro.


Cierva got his wish. Sustained, lazy low speed flight is what the autogyro excels at. It can’t hover like a helicopter because the rotor is not powered. The rotor relies on the forward movement of the plane to make it spin and provide lift. Despite its inability to hover, the autogyro has a distinct advantage over the helicopter: cost. They are cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate. They also have a big advantage over airplanes in that they need very little runway to take off and virtually none to land. An autogyro can be in the air using no more than 30 to 200 feet of runway. An autogyro can’t stall, like a plane, and doesn’t end up in a tailspin. Cierva was certainly on to something.

Below is a later Cierva autogyro:


So why didn’t the autogyro take off? A couple reasons. Cierva was the main proponent of the autogyro. After all it was his baby. His death in a plane crash in 1936 was a major blow to those promoting the autogyro. The second reason was the helicopter. The principle of the helicopter (which the autogyro also uses) goes back to 400 BC and the Chinese toys that probably most of us played with as kids.


The first successful helicopter, the Bréguet-Dorand Gyroplane Laboratoire, built in 1933, took its first successful flight in 1935. In 1936 and 1937, the Focke-Wulf Fw61 was setting world record after world record and the world forgot Cierva and his autogyro.

Below are pictures of early British autogyros, which were soon eclipsed by the helicopter.

Pitcairn_Autogyro Kay British Autogyro

A good idea tends to stick around and the autogyro is a very good idea. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s saw the birth of the ultralight aviation movement. People wanted more than just hang-gliding. They wanted to fly and they wanted their desire to be affordable. Enter the autogyro, or the gyrocopter as it is often called today. Aside from personal use, many cash-strapped law enforcement departments are turning to the autogyro because it is a cheaper alternative than the helicopter. The autogyro’s ability to stay in the air at very low speed makes it a viable alternative to the helicopter for crowd control, traffic control, and city surveillance. And because today’s autogyro is small, it can easily go where planes and helicopters can’t. Versatility is always a plus.

Here are some modern autogyros. Aren’t they beautiful?

Calidus Gyrocopter AutoGyro_Cavalon Kalithea Gyrocopter Modern Autogyro

Once again an old idea, which some thought obsolete and dead, has made a comeback — thanks to modern technology, brought about by the wonderful machine age.

These autogyros are so cool, I think I’m going to get me one. They have to be better than bucking traffic on a clogged freeway. And weren’t we supposed to have flying cars by now anyway?

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The Wonderful Machine Age: The Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines #3

The time period between World War I and World War II was the heyday of the rigid airship. Those two decades were filled with the exploits of what the great airships did and the dreams of what the future might hold for air travel.

1919 was an auspicious year. The war to end all wars was over. The airplane had developed in technological leaps and bounds. The airship as well had been refined. And whereas the airplane was mostly still a toy or of use for short distance flights, the airship was viewed as a machine of great commercial and military value.

On the 6th of March 1919, the British rigid airship, R33, took its first flight. Eight days later, her sister ship, R34, made it’s inaugural flight. Both airships were based on the design of German zeppelins in 1916. It is interesting to note, these were the most successful of any British rigid airship. The R33’s career lasted for nine years before she was scrapped in 1928 due to severe metal fatigue in her frame.

The R33 near her hanger:


The R34 made the first east to west crossing of the Atlantic by air (the more difficult crossing due to the prevailing westerly winds) in July 1919, flying from England to Canada. Hot meals were even served on board, courtesy of a hotplate welded to an engine exhaust manifold. On the 13th of July 1919, the R34 returned to England; completing the first ever round trip across the Atlantic by air.

The flight of the R34 in 1919 fueled speculation of the possibilities for commercial airship flights across the Atlantic on a grand scale.

August 20, 1919 saw the first flight of the LZ-120, Bodensee, the Zeppelin company’s new commercial airship for the DELAG airline. She flew over 100 flights, carrying 2,322 passengers over 31,000 miles (50,000 km). Unfortunately, the Allied powers forced the Germans to turn over the Bodensee to the Italian government as a war reparations in July 1921. As the Esperia, she made flights for the Italian government, including a 1,500 mile long distance flight, before being scrapped in July 1928.

The Bodensee:


The LZ-121, Nordstern, never served the DELAG and was turned over to France on 13 July 1921 as war reparations. The French Government never made much use of the ship and she was scrapped in 1926.

A substantial book could be written chronicling just the airships of the interwar period. To exemplify The Wonderful Machine Age, I’ll focus on the triumphs and the dreams.

The short two year life of the R100 was a dream come true. The world’s first luxury commercial airship. Her first flight was on 16 December 1929. She and her sister ship, the R101, were, at the time, the largest airships ever built. She was meant to carry 100 passengers in elegance for an envisioned transatlantic passenger service. In 1930, she flew from England to Canada and back again; repeating the R34’s flight and proving once again the feasibility of such a transatlantic service. Below are pictures of the R100:

R100 at St Hubert

Below the lounge on the R100:


The Grand Staircase in the R100:


Unfortunately, with the crash and subsequent fire which destroyed the R101 on 5 October 1930, the R100 was grounded and then scrapped the following year. The British were no longer interested in rigid airships.

This left but three rigid airships flying: the German-built USS Los Angeles, the newly launched USS Akron, built by Goodyear-Zeppelin for the US Navy, and the Zeppelin Company’s LZ-127, Graf Zeppelin.

The USS Los Angeles was the US Navy’s most successful airship. She was a sturdy vessel, logging 4398 hours of flight time and flying 172,400 nautical miles (319,300 km) with no major incidents. She was a testimony to the superior engineering and craftsmanship of the Zeppelin Company. She was decommissioned in 1932, returned to service briefly after the crash of the USS Akron in 1933, and then once again mothballed. She was scrapped in 1940.

The USS Los Angeles over Washington Blvd in Detroit, 1926:

USS Los Angeles over Washington Blvd, Detroit, 1926

The greatest airship of all was the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. She was an experimental ship. To avoid valving off lift gas to compensate for fuel usage, the Graf’s engines burned Blau gas, which weighed about the same as air. This successfully innovative feature was not duplicated in any other airship.

The Graf was small compared to the R100 and R101. She only had room for 20 passengers. And while accommodations were pleasant, they were not sumptuous.

The Graf Zeppelin:


The combination lounge/dining room on the Graf:


A cabin on the Graf:

GrafZeppelin 007

The Graf Zeppelin‘s career from 1928 to 1932 primarily involved experimental and demonstration flights displaying the airship’s capabilities. These flights included a round trip across the Atlantic in 1928, the round the world flight in 1929, the Europe-Pan American flight of 1930 (Germany to South America to North America and back to Germany), the 1931 polar expedition, two round trips to the Middle East, and a variety of other European flights.

The round the world flight set a world record. The Graf completed the circumnavigation in 21 days and could have made an even faster flight, except part of the purpose was a goodwill tour which involved spending extra time in Japan.

You can read more about her polar flight at

Beginning in 1932 until she was retired in 1937 after the Hindenburg tragedy, the Graf provided regular passenger, mail, and freight service between Germany and Brazil. Below is my favorite picture of the Graf Zeppelin coming flying into Rio de Janeiro.


The Graf Zeppelin was the first aircraft to fly over 1,000,000 miles (1,056,000). She made 590 flights, 144 transoceanic crossings, carried 13,110 passengers, and logged 17,177 hours of flying time. She did this without a single injury to passenger or crew. Keep in mind, her lift gas was hydrogen. Which I think proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, with the proper precautions, hydrogen is safe. She was scrapped in 1940.

The Hindenburg is well known and I won’t cover her story here. Her sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin (II) took her first flight on 14 September 1938. Like the Hindenburg, she was designed to fly using helium as her lift gas. However, the US government reneged on its promise to deliver helium to the Germans and the Graf Zeppelin II was inflated with hydrogen. She never entered commercial service and made but 30 flights. On 20 August 1939 she made her last flight. When she landed at 9:38 PM, the era of rigid airship flight came to an end.

The LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin (II):


More pictures of the LZ-130 can be seen at blimp info.Dining Room of LZ130

The rigid airships were the largest aircraft to fly. The success of the R33 and R34, the Graf Zeppelin, the USS Los Angeles, and the R100 excited the depression beleaguered public that good things were coming. Science and technology would make life better.

Lester Dent’s Zeppelin Tales and the fictional Doc Savage’s use of an airship were exciting fantasies reflective of this new hope that better times were coming.

The May 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics featured an airship with pontoons (to help cut hangar costs) and the July 1929 issue of Modern Mechanix, featuring an airship with wings and boat hull (to combine the best features of airships and seaplanes), were further examples of the possibilities that airships provided to improve intercontinental transportation.

zeppelin with wings Modern-Mechanics-May-1930-cover

There were even thoughts of an airship tuberculosis hospital. See for the article.


The airship has and continues to excite our imaginations as no other flying machine. Is it any wonder our retro-futurist fiction continues to make our dreams reality, even if only within the realities of our imaginations.

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The Wonderful Machine Age: The Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines #2

Airships. Those behemoths of the sky. Gentle giants that fill us with awe. That still inspire us to dream of their return some 78 years after the end of commercial airship flight. Oh, how we love them!

Yet, given today’s scale of economics, they are on par with the dinosaurs. The giants are gone and all that remains are those semi-lighter-than-air Zeppelin NTs. Something akin to watching birds and seeing in them the gigantic might of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the monstrous bulk of the Brachiosaurus.

Many books have been written about airships and many more will undoubtedly be written. They capture our imagination. They were the first flying machines to prove the feasibility of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. I’ve written previously on airships. Check out my guest blog post at The Old Shelter for additional information and pictures. This week and next, I’ll tell a little more of the history of those marvelous lighter than air machines.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers inaugurated heavier-than-air powered flight. Their initial flight lasted 12 seconds and the plane flew 120 feet. Their best effort of the day was a 59 second flight, for a distance of 852 feet. Certainly not an auspicious start when compared with the first powered airship flight in 1852 which traveled 27 km (17 miles). Nor when compared with the first zeppelin flight in 1900, which lasted 17 minutes and covered a distance of 6 km (3.7 miles). Clearly, the airship and not the airplane was the wave of the future.

However, World War I changed the picture and changed it dramatically, as wars often do. Airplane performance increased substantially. So much so, the plane proved itself superior to the airship in short distance operation. Mostly due to cheaper operating costs and speed. But for long distance flights, the airship was still king.

From the moment the Montgolfier balloon ascended into the sky in 1783, people started figuring out ways to make the balloon steerable and capable of free flight, independent of the wind.

The first powered flight of an airship occurred in 1852 when Henri Giffard flew 27 km (17 miles) in a steam-powered airship. He flew from Paris to Élancourt. However, the wind was too strong for him to make the return flight. He was, however, able to make turns and circles to show his airship was fully controllable.

Here is a picture of the model in the London Museum:


Thirty-two years later, Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs, in the French army airship La France, made the first fully controllable free flight. The airship was powered by an electric motor. The La France flew 8 km (5 miles) in 23 minutes and was able to fly against the wind to return to its starting point.

Here is a photo of La France:


The first fully controllable air dirigible 'La France', designed by Captain Charles Renard and Lieutenant Arthur Krebs, at Chalais-Meudon. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the early years of the 20th century, while Count Zeppelin was experimenting with rigid airships (vessels with gas cells contained inside a framework that gave the envelope or hull a fixed shape), Alberto Santos-Dumont was building and flying non-rigid airships (vessels with no framework, relying on gas pressure to maintain the shape of the envelope) in France. He was so successful, he started an airship craze. Soon everyone was getting into the act. Everyone wanted an airship. One of the most ambitious of these early airship men, was journalist Walter Wellman. In his airship, America, he made two attempts to fly to the North Pole and in 1910 attempted to fly across the Atlantic. You can read about his exploits on

Here is a picture of the airship America:


Non-rigid airships are limited in size due to the inherent instability of the envelope or hull. If too long, they may develop a kink should gas pressure become insufficient to maintain the shape.

The solution lay in giving the envelope some manner of framework to keep its shape. A semi-rigid airship has a keel to prevent buckling, gas pressure maintains the envelope’s width. A rigid airship supports the envelope with a framework. The lift gas is contained in cells within the framework. The largest airships we’re rigid in design, due to their inherent structural strength.

Enter Count Zeppelin. For the airship to be a successful passenger liner, cargo hauler, or military vessel, it needs to be able to carry a lot of weight and fly a great distance. The Count understood this and focused on the development of the rigid airship. From 1900 to 1911, numerous improvements were made and lessons learned on how to build and fly rigid airships.

The world’s first airline, the DELAG, went into operation in 1910 and in 1911 the LZ 10, Schwaben, joined the next year by the LZ 11, Viktoria Luise, was making regular flights between German cities, as well as pleasure cruises. By July 1914, the DELAG airships had flown 172,535 km on 1588 commercial flights, carrying 34,028 passengers. With no fatalities.

Here is a picture of the LZ 10:


During World War I the Germans built 90 airships, 73 of which were by the Zeppelin company. All of them were destroyed or turned over to the Allies. What the war revealed was that the rigid airship did not make for an effective strategic bomber. Its strength lay in reconnaissance, cargo hauling, and long distance flight.

A Schütte-Lanz airship, Zeppelin’s main competitor:


Perhaps the most spectacular achievement was by the LZ 104 (Navy ship L 59), known as the Africa Ship. On November 21, 1917, the LZ 104 took off from Bulgaria carrying 15 tons of supplies for the beleaguered German East Africa Army. On November 23, Lieutenant Commander Bockholt received an abort order and the ship returned to Bulgaria, arriving the morning of November 25.

The LZ 104:


The LZ 104 had flown over 6800 km (4200 miles) in 95 hours and had enough fuel for another 64 hours flight time. It wouldn’t be until 1938, when a modified Focke-Wulf FW200 “Condor” made the 3728 mile flight from Berlin to New York City, that trans-Atlantic commercial plane flights began to be conceived of as possible by land-based airplanes. I think it significant that LZ 104 could have flown from Berlin to New York with ease. In fact she could have flown for another 500 miles to Detroit, Michigan or Charlotte, North Carolina.

After the end of World War I, the airship was the only aircraft capable of trans-oceanic intercontinental flight. Next week we’ll conclude our look at the airship, one of the most marvelous machines of The Wonderful Machine Age.

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The Wonderful Machine Age: The Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines



They fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
Those daring young men in their flying machines.

My apologies for the parody. It does though capture the spirit of the Wonderful Machine Age. A time of daring do, a time when men and women pushed the boundaries of their world further and further. A time of rapid technological development.

We have always been envious of the birds. We’ve always wanted to be able to fly like them. Well, we still don’t fly like the birds do. We do, however, fly. And we do so with the greatest of ease in our marvelous flying machines.

Such was not always the case. The world’s first airline, the DELAG, was started a mere 106 years ago. The first powered, controlled, and sustained lighter than air flight took place in 1852. In 1874, Félix du Temple made the first successful heavier than air powered flight, although du Temple’s Monoplane was not completely self-powered. That feat would come in 1903 with the Wright brothers’ flight.

Myth aside, the history of flight began many centuries ago by attempting to imitate birds or riding aloft on kites. Flight via kite was generally more successful than was jumping from a tower in a bird suit and vigorously flapping manmade wings. Para-sailing is a popular sport today and can trace its roots back to those 6th century Chinese kite flyers, the first recorded one being the prisoner Yuan Huangtou.

However, if all we had available to us were flapping wings and kites, travel as we know it today would be much different. Certainly international travel would be. So lets fast forward to the 18th century in Europe, where in the latter half of 1783 a lot of hot air was occurring in France.

A momentous year was 1783. The Montgolfier brothers successfully demonstrated the feasibility of manned flight in a hot air balloon and Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers did the same in a hydrogen-filled balloon.

Suddenly ballooning became the rage and continues to this day as a sport, both hot air ballooning as well as the helium heads. In the early 20th century, ballooning was an especially popular sport in Britain. There balloons used coal gas for lift because it was readily available from the local gas works.

Of course, no sooner were hot air and hydrogen balloons flying about than people started to explore the possibility of dirigibles, or steerable balloons — what we today call airships. We will look at airships next week.

From 1783 onwards, balloons gave us our first true taste of flight, became useful in war to observe enemy troop movements and to defend against attack by enemy planes, and were of importance to the scientific community. High altitude scientific flights have given way to high altitude sporting flights and is a popular sport today. One such balloon in 2002 reached an altitude of 53 km/32.9 miles. And who hasn’t heard of the weather balloon, perhaps the most ubiquitous of scientific balloons, made über-famous as the reason for all of those UFO sightings. Can we spell R-O-S-W-E-L-L?

I have yet to take a flight on a balloon hot air or helium. It is on my list of things to do before I die. If I’m lucky there’ll be a storm and the balloon will be blown to Mysterious Island and I’ll meet Captain Nemo. One can only hope.

To some degree, balloons are the ugly step-sister in lighter-than-air flight. We retro-futurist writers love airships and seem to never give balloons a thought. Yet if it wasn’t for the balloon, we’d probably never had had the airship. After all, Count Zeppelin’s first flying experience was in an American Civil War observation balloon.

If you’ve gone ballooning, do consider telling us about your experience!

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The Wonderful Machine Age: Batteries

Batteries not included. That’s okay. It’s a minor inconvenience but easily remedied. Batteries are cheap and plentiful.

However, that was not always the case. Prior to the invention of the dry cell, all we had was the wet cell and a messy affair it was. Jars of acid with metal plates suspended in them. Not something useful to power your flashlight, smoke alarm, or radio. Let alone your computer, iPod, or hearing aid. Yet the wet cell made the telegraph possible and the automobile.

The term “battery” was coined by Benjamin Franklin to describe the linked Leyden jars he used for his electrical experiments. The first true battery was invented in 1800 by Alessandro Volta and was called the voltaic pile. It was a stack of paired copper and zinc discs, each pair separated from the others by cloth or cardboard soaked in brine. The brine functioned as the electrolyte.

While crude, the voltaic pile provided a fairly steady and reliable current and proved valuable for conducting experiments, such as the electrolysis of water.

The first practical wet cell for commercial and industrial application was invented by John Frederic Daniell in 1836. It was used to power the first telegraph systems. Daniell’s battery provided a steadier current for longer periods of time than the voltaic pile.

Over the years many improvements were made to the wet cell. Perhaps the most significant was in 1859 when Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery. The significance of his invention is that the battery was rechargeable by simply reversing the current. Previous wet cells were not capable of being recharged. The lead-acid battery is the type of battery used in the first automobiles to provide current to the spark plugs.

However, the battery we all know and love, the dry cell, came into being in 1886 with Carl Gassner’s zinc-carbon battery and in 1896 the National Carbon Company began producing an improved version on a commercial scale. The convenient and portable power source sparked a wave of portable electric devices, one of the first being the flashlight (or electric torch).

The battery is something about which we don’t think twice. We almost always have spares on hand to power the host of gadgets we also mostly take for granted. In my study I have the following battery-powered devices: smoke detector, two clocks, laptop computer, lamp, flashlight, iPad, iPod, digital recorder, cassette recorder, speakers, cellphone, iPod dock, and radio.

Additionally in the house there are more smoke detectors, more clocks, remote control devices, carbon monoxide detectors, camera, more flashlights, watches, calculator, car, GPS. And I’m probably overlooking something. For those who have kids, about a zillion toys can be added to the list. And let us not forget such things as pacemakers and hearing aids.

Let’s face it, modern life would not be possible without the battery, specifically the dry cell — which was invented in The Wonderful Machine Age.

So we retro-futurists should quit winding up our clockwork mechanisms and start using batteries. They’re the future, man.

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The Wonderful Machine Age: Socialists, Communists, and Labor Unions

“In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. … Conspicuous abstention from labour therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability… Labour [is] unavoidably become dishonourable, as being evidence of poverty.”

Thorstein Veblen coined the terms “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. The above quote, taken from the chapter, “Conspicuous Leisure”, points out the goal of every Victorian middle-class gentleman: to have so much money he needn’t work and was therefore able to buy whatever his heart desired.

The fabulous wealth generated by industry during the Machine Age spawned an entire class of people who didn’t work. They lived off their “living” and displayed their wealth in the most ostentatious manner possible.

Every coin, however, has a flip side. And while the Machine Age gave rise to a wealthy class, that wealth was generated on the backs of poorly paid laborers.

The lot of those in service was low wages, long hours, rudimentary living conditions, and the fear of being sacked with no reference.

Factory workers lost hands, arms, legs, or their lives working around machines with no safety guards. Lung disease was common amongst miners and textile workers. All in addition to receiving low wages, without any benefits.

It is reported that when the Titanic was sinking, the passageways from the lower decks were blocked to prevent any but the rich from getting a seat on the lifeboats.

When Marie Antoinette supposedly uttered those famous words, “let them eat cake”, it wasn’t because she was mean—it was because she genuinely thought the peasants had simply run out of bread and didn’t want to eat the cake they had. Ignorance of the plight of the peasant didn’t prove to be bliss in her case. And the lack of concern for how the middle class and the wealthy got their money at the beginning of the Machine Age, gave rise to powerful political and social dynamics that are still with us, long after the Machine Age came to an end.

Labor Unions

To improve working conditions, workers began to organize. In the US, the National Labor Union was founded in 1866. It was not overly successful and disbanded in 1874. It did, however, pave the way for more successful unions, such as the many railroad unions, the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the Industrial Workers of the World.

In Britain, unions were legalized in 1871 and were responsible for the founding of the Labour Party in 1900 to represent their interests in the government.

The story of the labor movement is too long to be told here. The significance of the movement to my mind was it’s largely successful attempt to get a bigger piece of the pie for workers. The people who produced the goods that generated the wealth for the Leisure Class, we’re entitled to a fair wage, fair benefits, and safe working conditions.

All of which we take for granted today. Fair wages, fair benefits, and safe working conditions are no longer up for discussion. They are now the norm and I think that is good. The laborer is worthy of his hire, the New Testament says. And it took labor unions to make honest Christians of many industrialists.

The scene in the movie Metropolis where the hero, the naive son of a wealthy industrialist, sees the factory workers, portrayed as automatons, and then himself works at a machine, I think tells it all.


The horror that was so often the late 19th century and early 20th century workplace and the wasteful opulence of the minority Leisure Class versus the majority Working Class, gave rise to Socialism — a social and economic system advocating social ownership or control of the means of production and the replacement of production for profit with production for use.

A socialist economy eschews the accumulation of capital and favors a system whereby goods are produced to satisfy individual and social needs.

Various forms of Socialism existed prior to the Machine Age. The form in which we see it today began as the Industrial Revolution ramped up the production of goods and successful business owners and industrialists grew rich, along with investors who didn’t work for a living. The notion that wealth should be shared by all gained adherents amongst the working class. How the working class should get their fair share was not universally agreed upon. But that they were entitled to more than what they were getting was universally agreed upon by Socialists.

The income tax (usually in a progressive form), worker-owned businesses, cooperatives, minimum wage, “free” public education (paid for by taxes), and “free” healthcare (paid for by taxes) are all ideas based on Socialist ideals.


Like Socialism, Communism existed in many forms prior to the Industrial Revolution. Vladimir Lenin advocated a particularly violent form of socialism which had its origins in the thought of Louis Auguste Blanqui, where a small band of revolutionaries should seize the government and then use the power of the state to enforce Socialism.

Lenin blended Blanqui’s views with those of Karl Marx to form the social-political-economic theories of the Communist Party. Marxism-Leninism has characterized the thought of Communists since the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Rising out of the Machine Age, Communism produced or was responsible for a multitude of horrors in the 20th Century. Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Nikolai Ceausescu, Kim Jong-il, Mao Zedong, and we must always remember Adolf Hitler rose to power in part as a crusader against Communism.

Some Thoughts

The Industrial Revolution and the Machine Age which followed were perhaps the greatest catalysts for social and political change since the invention of farming, which turned humans from wandering hunter-gatherers into civilization builders.

The Machine Age accelerated the urbanization of the Western world. Most people today live in cities and their sprawling suburbs and think their food comes from a store. They have little connection to the earth. How can they surrounded as they are by concrete, glass, asphalt, steel, plywood, and particle board? Is it any wonder people have little concept of what it means to protect the environment? Or why consumerism runs rampant, fueled by governments seeking economic growth? Growth which succeeds because people are no longer in touch with the earth, only the greed of their primal hunter-gatherer natures.

The Machine Age resulted in wonderful inventions which have enriched our lives — but it also had a dark side: dehumanization. I think this is in part why we have noir films and literature, why dissonance in art music became so prevalent from the 1920s onward, why totalitarianism became a reality in the ‘20s and ‘30s and continues in our democratic societies today as governments extensively monitor their citizens. And perhaps an even more insidious form of totalitarianism has arisen in the Digital Age with corporations such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon monitoring everything we do in order to try to control our behavior — all so someone can sell us something. Max Headroom?

Labor Unions, Socialism, Communism, and even Fascism and Nazism were all attempts to deal with the dark side of the Machine Age. And they did, with mixed results.

Today’s world has been built on yesterday’s and done so with mixed results.

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The Wonderful Machine Age: Mass Marketing/Consumerism

Then I saw in my dream, that when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity; and at the town there is a fair kept, called Vanity Fair. It is kept all the year long. It beareth the name of Vanity Fair … because all that is there sold, or that cometh thither, is vanity… One chanced … to say unto them, ‘What will ye buy?’

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678. His description of Vanity Fair predates the Industrial Revolution by eight decades and the Machine Age by two centuries. And yet nothing characterizes the Machine Age and the Modern Era so much as the question, “What will ye buy?”

Mass marketing and the accompanying Consumerism began in The Machine Age. And as it began, so did the hue and cry arise for us to return to a simpler life and eschew the call to “Buy! Buy! Buy!” Writers such as John Burroughs, David Greyson, Edward Bok, Ralph Borsodi, and Theodore Roosevelt wrote books and articles and gave speeches extolling the virtues of a life without “stuff”. And all the while the Ad Men appealed to our sense of need.

I know for myself there is life before iPad and life with iPad. I confess, I prefer life with iPad. Although I could live without the iPad, it would be much more difficult to dispense with the world wide web altogether. I’ve become used to having volumes of information at my fingertips that would have been difficult for even my local research librarian to glean a mere 40 years ago.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca, very much a voice for our age, counseled his friend that wealth was not in and of itself bad. What was bad was thinking we can’t live without it or that we should have it.

With stuff comes anxiety and the modern age is filled with anxiety. Thoreau’s image of the man pulling a massive barn-sized wagon down the road with all of his worldly possessions piled high in it comes to mind. There is something a whole lot simpler about a backpack.

How then did Mass Marketing and Consumerism arise? They arose out of the scale of production and the means to produce tens of thousands of an item, whereas previously only a hundred or two had been produced. They arose out of the dreams of our Victorian ancestors of what constituted progress and plenty.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were generally produced at home or in small shops. What today we call cottage industries. Local artisans and craftsmen produced goods to order in addition to what they produced for themselves. The extra money helped to supplement what was produced on the farm.

For example, in the American Revolution muskets and rifles were produced by hand. The British government contracted with gunsmiths to produce a certain number of weapons in a given period of time. An agent then went to the gunsmith’s place of business, collected the weapons, and paid the smith. The same was done for uniforms before the big textile mills were built.

The process was slow and costly. Production of goods was often secondary to the main livelihood of the producer, which was usually farming. With the advent of steam power and the invention of machines to manufacture goods, the scale of production went up. Instead of maybe ten or twenty pairs of socks a cottage industry could produce by hand, the mills could produce ten or twenty thousand in the same period of time or less.

This, however, caused a problem for the manufacturer. He simply had too many items on his hands. The cost to him to produce a thousand was often greater per item than to produce ten thousand. The economics of scale gives us a lower cost per item the more we produce because it is cheaper to buy in bulk than singly. So what was a manufacturer to do with the extra goods? Enter the Ad Man and the Salesman and the call, “What will ye buy?”

An interesting article is “The Commercial Christmas”, which gives a quick look at how the Victorians commercialized the holiday. And by 1890 editorials were appearing in The Ladies Home Journal complaining of Christmas being too commercial.

Today we have, through the world wide web, everything at our fingertips and ad agencies convince us we just can’t live without _________ (you fill in the blank). The amount of consumer debt is frightening. In the US, as of 31 March 2015, household debt was $11.85 trillion. Of that credit card debt was $684 billion. And as of the end of 2013 28% of Americans had more credit card debt than savings and only 51% had more emergency savings than credit card debt. And this doesn’t include other debt, such as school loans, car loans, and mortgages.

Consumerism is alive and well. Every government in the Western World worries when consumers stop spending and every developing country’s government  tries to figure out how to get its people to buy. The modern world is built on consumerism.

So why don’t we see more of this in our retro-future novels? Clearly the Steampunk and Dieselpunk real life worlds saw the beginning of mass marketing and consumerism and were in large part formed by them.

Is it a case, perhaps as with television, they are so much with us we see no fictional value in them?

I think of the short-lived, late ‘80s sci-fi TV show Max Headroom. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it was a satirical and cyberpunk look at ourselves “20 minutes into the future”. The first episode, entitled “Blipverts”, explored mass marketing. [Spoiler alert here.] People were mysteriously exploding. It was discovered that Network 23 was using high-intensity commercials which had the ability to overload people’s nervous systems, causing them to explode.

Of interest is that the atmosphere of Max Headroom was about as depressingly noir as one can get. I think it was cyberpunk at its finest.

Surely there is something in this the steampunk or dieselpunk writer can use. After all both steampunk and dieselpunk are children of cyberpunk. I see both subgenres ignoring major expanses of territory which need to be explored. Where is the inventiveness of Jules Verne and H G Wells? Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Fritz Lang (the movie Metropolis from 1927).

Both subgenres are science fiction and from my observation (of my own work too), both have degenerated into using highly selective tropes to produce works which are simply mysteries or romances or adventure yarns set in an alternative historical universe. There is nothing wrong with this. I just think there is so much more. Something like “Blipverts”.

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The Wonderful Machine Age – His Master’s Voice

Who isn’t familiar with the picture of the dog focused on the phonograph horn listening to the voice of his deceased master? Such is the power of sound, especially familiar sounds.

While typing this post, I was listening to the incredibly beautiful work of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, entitled “The Solent”. Prior to 1877 such would not have been possible. For in that year, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and within decades home entertainment was revolutionized. The piano in the parlor began to collect dust and piano lessons began to become a thing of the past.

Edison’s machine used a needle to record little hills and valleys in a wax cylinder, which when played back produced sound. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the gramophone which used a flat disc. The needle followed a track with moved side to side instead of up and down.

Below is Edison’s phonograph from 1899.


Eventually Berliner’s gramophone won the commercial battle because the process of producing records instead of cylinders was cheaper. A record cost 20¢, whereas a cylinder cost 50¢. For the cost of 2 cylinders, I could buy 5 records. Pretty simple math and the cylinder became a footnote in history. Ironically enough, Edison had already contemplated the disc but favored the cylinder because it was scientifically more perfect. I guess even geniuses make mistakes. And that’s why many of us grew up collecting records instead of cylinders.

Below is picture of a wind-up gramophone.


Edison’s phonograph was the first machine to both record and playback sound. However, an earlier machine, the phonautograph, invented in 1857, made a visual image of the voice for study by doctors and scientists. The image could not be played back. At least not until 2008 when, with the help of optical scanning and computers, the pictures were turned into digital audio files and listened to for the first time. The oldest recordings of the human voice.

Just as Bell had competition for the telephone, so did Edison with the phonograph. That competition came in the form of Charles Cros’ paleophone. Cros, who was a poet and amateur inventor, came up with the idea to use photoengraving to transfer the phonautograph image to a disc or cylinder for playback. He wrote a letter describing his idea and deposited it with the French Academy of Science on 30 April 1877. Cros’ idea became public on 10 October 1877, however by then he had improved upon his original concept by inventing a way to capture and record sound using an acid-etch method.

Learning of Edison’s machine, Cros had his April letter opened and claimed scientific priority over Edison.

Cros’ method became standard procedure to produce the metal masters from which the flat records could be pressed. Unfortunately, he died in 1888 and could not enjoy his triumph over Edison. Today, no one’s even acquainted with the name of Charles Cros.

The phonograph, or gramophone, is perhaps one of the most iconic inventions of The Machine Age. Rivaled only by the telephone and the automobile. It appeared at the age’s beginning and was going strong when the age faded away. Today, the phonograph has morphed into the ubiquitous iPod.

There was a gramophone on board the Graf Zeppelin on its round the world flight in August 1929. Brought on board by millionaire Bill Leeds, Commander Hugo Eckener had it promptly removed. Leeds retrieved the machine and told Eckener if weight was the problem he’d leave behind his luggage.

Bram Stoker, in his novel Dracula, had Doctor Seward record his diary on a phonograph. Seward, however, was worried the count might be able to melt the wax cylinders with his mysterious powers and destroy Seward’s recordings of the vampire’s machinations. That is perhaps the first literary example of the dictaphone, which has also gone digital.

Of equal lineage with the phonograph is the tape recorder. We don’t really use them anymore but we do use digital versions to record our voices.

The tape recorder was invented in 1886 by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory. The machine used a strip of paper coated with beeswax. Magnetic recording was first conceived of in 1877 and demonstrated in 1898, first using wire and later tape.

Below is an early magnetic wire recorder from 1898.

Magnetic Wire Recorder 1898
Magnetic Wire Recorder 1898

The record player and tape recorder were everywhere in the 20th century — even more widespread than the TV. I think retro-futurist writers with a little imagination can easily come up with something true to form and yet truly fantastic. Bram Stoker did so simply by including a phonograph in his novel. Now what if that record player or tape recorder could fit inside a small brown box about the size of a deck of cards?

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The Wonderful Machine Age – Television

One of the things we take for granted here in the West is television. It is everywhere. You can find it in doctor’s and dentist’s offices, bars, and of course at home. Television is used for security monitoring and it has gone to outer space. Television is out of this world. Where would we be without it?

I have always known television. Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I watched plenty of the black and white world of the tube. And when color came along in the later ‘60s, I thought I’d entered paradise.

Even though we may not be able to imagine a world where TV doesn’t exist, it wasn’t all that long ago that it didn’t exist. My parents grew up with radio for entertainment in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For them, television was something as fantastic as Buck Rogers and his space ship or Superman or Dorothy in Oz. I can remember my mother saying, while listening to radio dramas as a girl, how she wished she could see the show instead of just listen to it. She did get her wish.

So when did television begin? Would you believe the foundational technologies and machines responsible for TV were developed in the 1840s and 1850s? That the name itself was coined in 1900? And the first instantaneous transmission of images occurred in 1909? It is all true. The Victorian and Edwardian eras laid the foundation for what eventually became television.

I am continually amazed at how many things we take for granted today, were first conceived of or initially developed or had their roots in the Victorian era. The 19th century, second only to the 20th, was the most fertile time period for human inventiveness. The human imagination was operating on steroids.

Mechanical Television

Television, as we more or less know it today, began in the 1920s through the work of the Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, and three Americans: Charles Francis Jenkins, Herbert E Ives, and Frank Gray (the latter two worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories).

The first TVs were mechanical devices and depended on a spinning disk called a Nipkow Disk for transmission of the picture. The disk separated a picture into lines which could then be transmitted by wire or wireless technology and then the disk played back the picture and the eye, due to persistence of vision, saw the picture as a unit.

Baird marketed his TV as the “Baird Televisor”. They were very expensive: costing $1000 back in the early depression. Somewhere between $13,000 and $14,000 today. A kit could be had for $39.50, or about $576 in today’s dollars.

The work of Ives and Gray led to the creation of the first television station, W2XB, known as WGY Television, in 1928 in the US. The station still operates today.

The BBC in 1929 had 30 regularly scheduled programs and in 1931 there were 25 stations broadcasting in the US, some in Iowa and Nebraska.

However the mechanical television had two major problems: small picture size and poor picture quality. Below is an example of what people would see on a Televisor. Do note, the reproduction is poorer than the actual image because the light level of the original is so low. But it gives you an idea of the wonder that was early TV.


This site has an animated version of what a mechanical TV picture was like:

The picture size was small due to practical limitations in how big the Nipkow disk could be made. Picture quality was poor due to there only being 30-60 lines per frame instead of the 525 for US standards or 625 for European standards.

Consequently, image size and quality killed mechanical television. The public just wasn’t interested. Broadcasts ceased in the US by 1933, except for a few universities which kept broadcasting until 1939. The BBC stopped in 1935 and the Soviet Union quit in 1937.

Electronic Television

While mechanical television was enjoying its day in the sun, work was progressing on the cathode ray tube, first invented in 1897. As early as 1914 a system for image transmission was developed, but image quality was very faint.

Image improvement came from Kálmán Tihanyi’s invention of “charge storage”, whereby the camera tube (or transmitting tube) accumulated and stored electrical charges which enhanced picture quality. RCA bought Tihanyi’s patents. In 1929, the first live human images were transmitted. They are 3 1/2 inches in size and used a system developed by Philo Farnsworth, a competitor to RCA.

The EMI engineering team in Britain won the race to produced a new camera which could make viable television images and in November 1936 began the world’s first regular high-definition television service.

Interestingly enough, Kálmán Tihanyi in 1936 described the principle of plasma display and the first flat-panel display system. Flat-screen TVs and Plasma TV are pure dieselpunk. Who would have thought it?

I don’t recall writers from the time period using TVs, which I find rather odd since they did exist. If they could envisioned fantastically futuristic airships, space ships, and death rays — why not fantastic televisions?

What’s even more odd, to my thinking, and I’m just as guilty, is why aren’t we retro-futurist writers putting TVs into our stories? Everything is possible in the retro-future, so why haven’t we put TVs into our stories?

The development of the TV is incredibly fascinating reading. Contributions came from all over Europe and the US to give us what we take for granted today. And now that I know about it, you can bet your next paycheck Rand Hart is going to be watching TV the next time he’s on the Hindenburg. Maybe a broadcast of the opera “Fedora” by Giordano.

Further Reading  This site has an animated TV picture.

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The Wonderful Machine Age

The Machine Age is that glorious sixty-five years of scientific and especially technological development occurring between 1880 and 1945. Virtually everything we take for granted today, for good or for ill, has its origin in The Machine Age. In the coming weeks I’ll share with you some of the inventions, social movements, and artistic expressions originating in that glorious era when science and technology were going to solve all of our problems.

I became interested in The Machine Age when I started writing speculative fiction (or science fiction, if you prefer). And I soon discovered The Machine Age also touched upon the crime and horror fiction I also write, although much more indirectly. The Machine Age directly or indirectly touches on all writing.

Speculative fiction, whether heavily based in science or not, takes the known and extrapolates it into an alternative world from the one in which we live. That world might be in the future, another dimension, or an alternative past.

The speculative fiction I write falls into the subgenres of post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophes and dieselpunk. In both, I make heavy use of the wonders of The Machine Age.

In The Rocheport Saga, the hero, Bill Arthur, has set for himself the task of not letting the human race descend into the Stone Age after a mysterious illness wipes out nearly all of humanity. He is determined to overcome our modern lack of knowledge of how things work in order to rebuild society. The knowledge is all there, in books and old people, we just need to learn how to do what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did as a matter of course.

Bill Arthur takes comfort in the fact that The Machine Age inventions were largely produced by amateurs. The Wright brothers made bicycles and Santos-Dumont was a wealthy kid who liked to tinker — they weren’t aeronautical engineers. The Stanley twins, one a photographer and the other a school teacher, were not automotive engineers. Count Zeppelin was a retired military officer who knew nothing about flying. His chief engineer and designer, Ludwig Dürr, knew nothing about airships. And the greatest airship captain of all time, Hugo Eckener, was a journalist.

In a very real sense, amateurs built the foundations of our modern world. Therefore in the post-apocalyptic world of Rocheport and Bill Arthur, amateurs can do it again. People simply need to understand how things work.

In the Lady Dru series and the forthcoming Rand Hart series, I build dieselpunk alternative histories based on The Machine Age. From the late 1800s through World War II, the dreamers of what the future would be like came up with some pretty fantastic ideas. Robots to be our servants and fight our wars. Airships to provide safe and quiet transportation for people and cargo. Cities free from pollution and traffic congestion. And, yes, flying cars.

Those same dreamers also came up with things like particle beam weapons and orbiting parabolic mirrors to send the sun’s light in death rays to destroy cities. They even speculated on thought beam weapons. The flying wing, jet engines, the ballistic and cruise missiles also came from those same dreamers.

The Machine Age was a wonderful time of fantastic technological advancement. I look forward to sharing with you some of the things I’ve discovered while doing research for my novels and I hope you enjoy the discoveries as much as I did.

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