Friday, August 20, 2010

A Head Full of Steam: Remembering the Steamboat

This week marked the 203rd anniversary of the maiden voyage of the first practical steamboat. On August 17, 1807 Robert Fulton and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston were holding their breath as the Steamboat (the unique monstrosity needed no name to distinguish it from the other boats on the river at this point) made its first trip from Manhattan to Albany. The story has been told and retold so I won't belabor you with it again, but suffice to say, it has been imbued with the mists and romance of history.

When I first arrived at Clermont, fresh from graduate school, with a head full of my first love: historic costumes, steamboats were about as far from my mind as they could be. Antiquated technology had done little to capture my imagination. But the fact was that I had failed to recognize the impact of steam transportation on the American (and world) life and imagination.

The technology that pushed the North River Steamboat, as it was eventually called (and much later referred to retroactively as the Clermont), later pushed the Transcontinental Railroad to the Pacific Ocean and the Titanic across the Atlantic. One might almost say that it "shrunk" the size of the world by making distances less imposing. Journeys that once took months could now be completed in a matter of days or weeks.
On a more recent note, steam power has generated a deeply romantic following over the past century. It all really started in 1909 celebration (now memorably referred to as the Hoopla on the Hudson). The celebration simultaniously comemmorated the 200th anniversary of the Henry Hudson exploration and the 100th (plus two) anniversay of the Fulton/Livingston steamboat. The celebration was surrounded by nostalgic art, books, and more and colored by the pageantry and rose-colored glasses of the Colonial Revival (for instance, the delightfully Colonial-esque pediment on the cover of Alice Crary Sutcliff's 1909 book Robert Fulton and the Clermont).

And steam has continued to play a dramatic role in our memories. Several steamboating societies in America (and beyond) testify to the lure of steam techonology as a hobby. Boaters primarily build their own vessels, tinker with them, improve them, and carefully research and engineer them with a devotion that reminds me of classic car lovers. In 2007 I had the priviledge of riding in one of the hobby steamboats, lovingly outfitted with a striped canopy and matching sofa cushions, at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The soft, putt putt putt of the enging and the fascinating twist of gears was downright hypnotic.

And you can't omit the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine in all this either. Here is an unbearably-cute, anthropomorphized steam engine, who tempts hundreds of thousands of 21st century children with his drastically-outdated technology. The books were originally written in 1915 but seem to have only recently acheived their full potential with a wildly-popular television series, massive collection of train toys, and a host of other marketable items from cupcakes to bedding and furniture.

Trains seem to have become the subject of most of this "steamy" romance. But the appeal of whistling and clicking, old-timey technology has also burgeoned into an international cult-following with the popularity of steampunk. Steampunk is hard to sum up in one paragraph if you don't already know it, but its fiction is often based in Victorian-esque alternate realities, powered by whirring mostrosities of machinery, often highly decorated with polished copper and brass and a myriad of glittering gears. According to a recent issue of Steampunk Magazine, "Steampunk has always been a melting pot of ideas, where present and past intertwine with fantasies of our own imaginations..."
Now steampunk has generated its own cottage industry of artists and craftspeople remaking modern technology in the image of something much older (like the steampunk computer at left I borrowed from Wikipedia). Think something like The Flinstones using dinosaurs to replicate the image of Fred driving a crane in the show's opening sequence.
Most people are aware that Fulton did not truly "invent" the steamboat. Many inventors had already been riducled for and pursued the idea of getting something as nebulous as steam to drive gears and wheels. Fulton was merely the gifted mechanic who managed to get this tricky process to work.
What I find curious is the huge impact that this has continued to have on our psyche. It has evolved however from a frightening new techonology that threatened a whole way of life (some captains of slower sailing packet boats became so concerned about the economic impact that this could have on them, they began to ram the steamboats as a desperate attempt to put them out of commission) to something we associate with "times gone by" and something long lost. One of the draws for curious tourists to the historic district of Gastown in Vancouver, British Coloumbia is a large steam clock whose whistles chime every quarter hour. Surrounded by attractive brick sidewalks and a quaint shopping district, the steam clock is an emblem of nostalgia in a town proudly proclaiming its history--even though the clock wasn't built until 1977.

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