Recently with the help of the Steampunk group, the 42nd Airship Battalion, I organized an outing to the Houston Maritime museum. The tour included over 150 model ship exhibits, spanning the age of exploration to the modern merchant marines and several models of steam powered ships from the Victorian age. As you can see from the photos we all had an amazing time.
The museum exhibits included models of steam paddle ships. Riverboats conjure images of fun and adventure and are therefore a perfect setting for a Steampunk story. Paddle boats were highly popular in the 18thcentury for navigating well in shallow waters as well as up river against fierce currents. Prior to the development of the railways they were a favorite ways to travel. The interiors of the antebellum riverboats were luxurious with elaborate crystal chandeliers, lush hand carved furniture, oriental rugs, and so much more. Of course one needs drama and trauma in any novel and there is plenty of opportunity for that on a steam paddle ship.
Fire is always s a great disaster for fiction. At the museum I learned the double steam stacks towered so high to keep sparks as far away from the wood boat as possible. Still sometimes an ember would hit the ship. Wood and paint are highly flammable so fire, panic, and catastrophe would ensue. If you want something even more dramatic, the boilers sometimes exploded in a huge, ear splitting, blast of fire and smoke, resulting in the deaths of many passengers and leaving even more injured. Body parts were literary blown off. In 1830 the US Congress funded research to end boiler explosions. Here is a website that even list River Boat demise with the reason and year of the loss.
The museum also had an exhibit on the Texas Navy which served the Republic of Texas when it stood as a separate country from 1836 into 1845 after gaining independence from Mexico. The idea of combing the wild west with Victorian nautical influences thrilled my muse. You can see more of these valiant fighting men in tiny but feisty ships on this youtube video.
To me the most important Victorian submarine was the Plongeur, simply because when Jules Verne saw it at the Exposition Universelle in 1867, it served as his inspiration for the Nautilus. However, the museum’s model of and news clipping about the confederate submarine the H. L. Hunley intrigued me. This combat submarine, named after its inventor Horace Lawson Hunley, was the first sub to sink an enemy warship. However, the Hunley itself sunk three times in its short career. The second time it sunk, Horace Lawson Hunley was among one of the men who drowned. After the Hunley’s successful attack on the screw sloop, the USS Housatonic the sub sank for unknown reasons and was lost.
Speaking of the confederacy and the U.S Civil war the museum included models of the ironclad ships, the rebel Merrimac and the union Monitor. Ironclads refer to steam powered warships of that era, protected by iron or steel armor plates. By the end of the U. S. civil war the Union was building triple turreted ironclads with twenty inch mounted guns. By the 1880’s ironclads were equipped with the heaviest guns ever mounted at sea and more sophisticated steam engines. Modern day battleships developed from these ironclad ships.
If you have a maritime museum in your local area, I encourage you to visit. Organize a Steampunk outing there if you are able, I guarantee you it’ll be a lot of fun and I’m sure you’ll gather inspiration for your Steampunk writing. After all, it’s sad to think of this, but if Jules Verne had not attended the Exposition Universelle in 1867 and seen the Plongeur, we might not have 20,000 Leauges Under The Sea, which readers enjoy to this day, over 140 years after it was first published.