Today is my grandmother’s 88th birthday. That has little enough to do with steampunk until I think about the era in which she grew up.
She was born right after World War I, a mere seven years after the first Zeppelin attack took place on London as part of armed warfare. She grew up in Sicily until she was 14 years old, so she was no mere novice when it came to steam-fired mechanics and old-fashioned ways of doing things in their village of Villa Rosa, at the heart of the island.
Her generation was the first to really reap the benefits of automotives, air flight and radio as part of their everyday lives, yet she lived in a community where there wasn’t electrical in every home, and food was still cooked in wood-burning ovens. They used geared machines to crush the olives from their orchards for olive oil, rode horses or steam trains to get from one town to the next and used steam-powered machines for the sulfur mines.
It wasn’t until the year 1922, when she was born, that a self-winding watch was invented by John Harwood. In science the theory of acids and bases, ideas of the earth’s magnetic field, the production of hydrogen on a manufacturing scale, the development of synthetic oil were still years away. Air flight in small planes was still an experimentation, as was television and moving pictures with sound. It boggles the mind how much the world has changed in just 88 years.
In writing, reading and participating in steampunk, we have an opportunity to turn back the clock, as it were. A time-machine of our very own. It wasn’t as far back as we like to think. And while steampunk does encompass the whole of the Victorian era (which was the bulk of the 19th century), it really was as little as 100 years ago that what we take for steampunk imagination and invention was part of their daily reality.
So here’s a top-hat off to Hellen Jane Palmeri Sauro Stokes. Happy Birthday, grandma. And thanks for sharing with me a little bit of your memories of what it was like back then.