Harper Voyager Science Fair: Old School Science w/ Viola Carr, Ruth Vincent, and Brooke Johnson

Today, Viola Carr(author of The Dastardly Miss Lizzie), Ruth Vincent (author of Unveiled) and Brooke Johnson (author of The Brass Giant) are joining us for the Harper Voyager Science Fair (#HVsciencefair), to Old School Science. Enjoy!

Where Victorian Science and Steampunk Intersect

by Viola Carr


It’s Old School Science Day! Let’s unearth a prickly concept that started as a sort of scientific heresy, progressed to a respectable theory, and was finally debunked by a bizarre experiment involving Americans and a bucket of mercury – that singular staple of steampunk, luminiferous aether.


We authors use aether a lot in alternate history, mostly as a fantasy energy source. We burn it, fire it from cannons, use it to power rockets and airships, or to destroy the world in finest old-school superweapon tradition. Our brass-corseted science geek heroines will eagerly attend a demonstration of Professor Codswallop’s fabulous new aether engine! whilst brandishing their electrified parasols and lunching on tea and witticisms. Aether is a cool, steampunky thing.


But to Victorian scientists, aether (or ether, if you want to be boring) was real. An invisible, intangible fluid, insubstantial but pervading all of space. ‘Luminiferous’ means ‘light-bearing’: aether was the substance via which light propagated. It was literally everywhere. It had to be, because it was their only answer to a vexed but vital question: if light is a wave, what’s waving?


So what exactly was the aether? Problem was, no one knew. For many years, treating light as a wave at all was a surprising act of courage. The great god of British science, Sir Isaac Newton, had decided light was made of particles he called corpuscles, and you contradicted Newton at your peril. If light’s a wave, Newton had wondered, then why can’t we see around corners, the way we hear a sound from a source that’s out of sight? And the idea of aether—immeasurable, unweighable, unobservable—gave the empirically-minded Newton the willies. Corpuscles, he thought, made more sense. Even if they didn’t quite fit all the facts.


(The story goes that Newton hashed all this out in the 1660s, while hiding away from the plague at his country house. Though he didn’t publish Opticks until later in life, when his awe-inspiring reputation (and the death of his most vocal critics) ensured he wouldn’t be contradicted. Today, you can still visit his house, Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, and see the room where he conducted his famous experiments in optics: splitting light with prisms, shoving needles into his eye, staring into the sun until he couldn’t see, that sort of thing. Young Newton was quite the madman.)

Woolsthorpe Manor. Photo taken by Viola Carr.

Fast-forward to 1800, and a new age of experimentation and popular science. From the work of scientists like Huygens and Euler, people knew that Newton’s theory didn’t quite match reality. But how to prove it? Enter Thomas Young’s famous double-slit experiment. If you remember only one thing about high-school physics, it’s probably this: shine a light through twin slits. The bands of shadow you see indicate interference. Interference—like when ripples in water meet—is a thing that waves do, not particles. Ergo, said Young, light must be a wave.


So what’s waving? Well, we can’t see it, or weigh it, or burn it, or detect it in any way. But something must be there. Right? This idea loitered like an embarrassing relative for many years. No one thought it was a particularly stellar idea—intangible? All-pervasive? Surely this must be rubbish—but their experiments couldn’t find a better explanation. Even with the advent of Faraday’s “lines of force” and Maxwell’s equations—delightful things, equations—showing that light was an “electromagnetic disturbance,” no one came forward with a serious alternative to aether.

Faraday’s Lab. Photo taken by Viola Carr.

Finally, in the 1880s, a pair of Ohio scientists thought up a way to test it. The aether, so went the idea, is stationary. But Earth is moving. So light beams on Earth must experience some drag, or “aether wind”. And they developed this amazing apparatus, involving a stone slab that floated friction-free in a bucket of mercury, to detect that drag. Problem was, they found none. Zero. The Michelson–Morley experiment has been called “the most famous failed experiment in history”—for it proved a negative. The expected aether wind wasn’t there. And an idea that had persisted for centuries quietly gave up the ghost. One suspects Newton would have been delighted.


But the fact that it’s utter bollocks doesn’t stop we steampunk authors using the luminiferous aether in our stories. Oh, no. We’re a persistent lot. And it’s such a charming, silly, fabulously named idea.

Magic Under the Microscope: How Victorians “Proved” the Existence of Fairies

by Ruth Vincent


What we think of as a fairy –a tiny, beautiful, female figure with butterfly wings – is an image we owe to the Victorians, and their century-long obsession with fairies in Art, Literature, Popular Culture, and even Science. Prior to that era, the fairies of folklore had few to none of these now ubiquitous characteristics, and were more akin to monsters; hardly creatures you’d want frolicking about your garden, illustrating your children’s storybooks, or trying to sell you soap. But what has been mostly forgotten is the earnest attempts of some of the era’s intellectuals to use Science (or what we’d now deem Pseudoscience) to prove the existence of these supernatural beings.


Fairies were a serious subject of academic inquiry in the late 19th and early 20th century, and not just amongst Anthropologists trying to document the waning folk-religious belief in fairies still present in rural Britain.  There was also an attempt to prove the existence of fairies in the Physical Sciences. Much of this was thought to be quackery even in its own day, and yet it hoodwinked many a mighty mind, the most famous of whom being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Coming of the Fairies, he wrote:

We see objects within the limits which make up our colour spectrum, with infinite vibrations, unused by us, on either side of them. If we could conceive a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down…


While fairies might be invisible, and thus unprovable, at present, Conan Doyle was optimistic that scientific ingenuity could reveal them in the future:

If the objects are indeed there, and if the inventive power of the human brain is turned upon the problem, it is likely that some sort of psychic spectacles, inconceivable to us at the moment, will be invented, and that we shall all be able to adapt ourselves to the new conditions. If high-tension electricity can be converted by a mechanical contrivance into a lower tension, keyed to other uses, then it is hard to see why something analogous might not occur with the vibrations of ether and the waves of light.


In an era of unprecedented discovery in the realm of previously invisible things, from germs to X-rays to radio waves, perhaps it seemed only logical to Conan Doyle that fairies could be the final frontier of scientific research. As fairy anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz wrote in 1911:

“We realize now that there is nothing supernatural–that what used to be so called is simply something that we do not understand at present. Our forefathers would have thought the telephone, the X-rays, and wireless telegraphy things ‘supernatural’.


The Victorians also invented what we’d now call Popular Science. What had once been the province of a small, elite community of scholars, now became entertainment for the masses. A dramatic increase in literacy led to a voracious consumption of newspapers, who sensationalized the latest scientific discoveries; “electrical demonstrations” drew huge crowds, turning Science into theatrical spectacle; and for a few pennies at an exhibition, an ordinary Victorian could  peer through a microscope, and glimpse in a drop of drinking water an alien world teeming with previously invisible creatures, as wondrous and horrifying as any goblins depicted by the era’s popular “fairy painters.”

“Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 
John Anster Fitzgerald “The Stuff Dreams are Made of”

While the Victorians’ increased public awareness, and enthusiastic public interest in the Sciences was laudable, this “little bit of knowledge” also created a fertile ground for Pseudoscience to flourish, especially as it collided with the era’s other popular movement: Spiritualism. Attempting to justify their supernatural beliefs scientifically led the Victorians to some bizarre assertions, such as the Theosophist, Madame Blavatsky, writing in 1877 that fairies could be “Mr. Darwin’s missing link between ape and man.”[iv]

The obsession with trying to scientifically prove the existence of fairies peaked and then faded in the 1920’s with the famous Cottingley Fairy Hoax, in which two adolescent girls faked a series of photographs purporting to be of fairies, convincing several prominent intellectuals, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Fairies and Their Sun-bath” 1920

But ironically, it was the fairy photographs, and ensuing frenzy of media attention given to their proof or disproof that marked the end of the era. If fairies were material beings, able to be photographed, a presence as natural in one’s garden as grasshoppers, then there was nothing magical about them. Society’s sense of wonder was forced to move on to new pseudoscientific speculations.  As Carole Silver writes in “Strange and Secrete Peoples: Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness”:

“Narrowing the great debate on fairy origins and existence to a question of whether specific photographs were fraudulent, proffering pictures that invalidated private or heroic images of spirits, rendering the elfin tribes as psychic insect life, they trivialized and diminished the elfin races almost beyond recognition. When the “little people” next emerged, their origins were different. They were small green creatures from another planet who visit earth in close encounters of a different kind.”


How Technology of the 19th Century Shaped the Modern World (and My Fictional One)

By Brooke Johnson


I write science-heavy steampunk, so I get to play a lot with hypothetical steampunk inventions when I’m writing, from something as simple as a mechanical music box to a fully operational clockwork automaton. Most of my machines are based in reality, built in accordance with the laws of physics and the known applications of science of the late 19th century. Other machines… not so much. But! Using what I know about real machines means I can lend credibility and authenticity to the made-up ones. And the technology of Victoriana is a vast playground of possibility; even the real machines must have seemed like magic at the time of their conception.


Here are a few Victorian inventions that changed science fiction into reality:


Electric Telegraphy (1816)

Telegraphy underwent swift advancements in the early 19th century—from the first working telegraph developed by Francis Ronalds in 1816 using static electricity, to the development of the recording electric telegraph in 1837, developed by Samuel Morse—laying the groundwork for commercial telegraphy across the world. Telegraph lines primarily followed railway lines at first, and then spread to post offices to provide mass communication to the modern world. The first transatlantic telegraph was sent in 1858 by Queen Victoria to the then-president of the United States, James Buchanan, a feat which soon revolutionized intercontinental communications, previously sent only by ship. By 1902, telegraph cables had connected the entire world, and telegraph services continued throughout the 20th century.


Electromagnets and Electromagnetic Waves (1820)

A marriage of electricity and magnetism, the electromagnet is a device that produces a magnetic field from an electrical current. The most basic electromagnet is created by wrapping a coil of copper wire around a piece of iron and then passing electricity through the coil. Voila! Electrically powered magnetism. The electromagnet is used in many modern electric and electromechanical devices, including generators, transformers (the kind that sits on telephone poles, not the giant robot kind), headphones, tape recorders, MRI machines, maglev trains, and even supercolliders. Where this branch of science gets really interesting is in the production and manipulation of electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic waves. I won’t go into too much detail there (in part because I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around electromagnetism yet), but a significant application of electromagnetism came in the latter half of the 19th century, when Heinrich Hertz discovered that messages could be conveyed through electromagnetic waves, giving rise to wireless telegraphy, a precursor to modern radio broadcasting.


Electric Generators (1832)

Once electromagnetism was discovered, it opened up a whole realm of possibility for the advancement of modern technology, generators included. Before practical application of electromagnetism, electric generators were powered using electromechanical means, transforming mechanical work into electric energy. But then Michael Faraday created the first electromagnetic generator, giving rise to modern dynamos, electrical generators that operate using a magnetic field. The dynamo was the first commercially applicable generator, which used electromagnetic field coils instead of permanent magnets to greatly increase the power output, enabling high power generation for the first time. The invention led to the first major industrial use of electricity, which led to even more electrical developments in the latter half of the century.


Translating these technologies into my steampunk world was a simple task once I understood the concepts behind them. My steampunk books take place in the 1880s, so a lot of these technologies were already in commercial and popular use at the time, or in the process of further development, which is what makes the engineering-centric world of Chroniker City such a fascinating place to set a story. By using real, existing technologies, I am able to push the boundaries of Victorian science and lend believability to the impossible. In fact, all of the above technologies play a part in my books, and while they might be less exciting than clockwork automatons, gun-toting airships, or petrol-powered mechs, these technological developments are very real and very important to the world that my characters live in, just as they were important to the real life denizens of the 19th century.



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