These days there’s a popular fashion or “cosplay” fad known a “Steampunk.” Steampunk is based on the idea of futuristic technology existing in the past, usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. But thirty years before H.G. Wells published his sci-fi masterpieces, there was a real life Steampunk walking the streets of Newark, NJ.
In January 1868 a futuristic steam powered robot called the Newark Steam Man was patented and built by an eccentric inventor named Zadoc P. Dederick, who hoped he had solved the problem of the horseless carriage. Dederick, a patternmaker by trade, built a man-like figure about seven feet tall with a 6 horse-power steam engine in its belly. Its legs were double-jointed, so that the knees could bend backward or forward, and its arms reached down to grasp the shafts of a small carriage that carried fuel, perhaps a passenger or two, and controls. Its feet were spiked with strong springs to retract them at each step. Its head, which had a face and hat, concealed a smokestack and a whistle. The device was clothed so that it would not frighten the horses.
Dederick hoped that the Steam Man could run at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, which was theoretically possible from this engine, but the best that it really did was a walk, perhaps a stumbling walk. Eyewitnesses claim that it really functioned, and on January 23, 1868, it marched around Military Park into a beer garden where it was put on display, at 25 cents per head, while it went through its paces.
The Steam Man received much attention from the national press, and visitors, including the governor of New Jersey, came from all over the East to see it. Dederick received inquiries about manufacturing it, and correspondents suggested that it be used to develop the prairies. On the whole it was treated seriously, but a wag on the Newark Daily Journal expressed worry, perhaps with Frankenstein in mind, that if steam men and women were made and reproduced, “will it be possible for normal men and women to compete with steam men and women?”
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What finally happened to the Newark Steam Man? No one knows. It dropped out of the news. There are two explanations. First, that Dederick dismantled it, planning to build a superior, lighter version that he never finished. Second, that it was taken to New York, where it was destroyed in the fire that demolished P.T. Barnum’s museum at that time. Barnum is known to have sent a representative to look at the invention.
If the Newark Steam Man thus disappeared from history, it remained alive in literature, and produced an enormous progeny ranging up into the Tom Swift books. As Irwin’s American Library #45, August 1868, Beadle and Adams issued “The Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward Sylvester Ellis, a popular, prolific writer of dime novels. Ellis was a resident of Red Bank, New Jersey, and it is quite possible that he actually saw the metal monster. In the story Johnny Brainerd, a St. Louis boy, builds a steam man like Dederick’s and takes it out on the prairies, where between chasing buffalo and working on a gold mine, he uses it to slaughter Indians. Ellis’ story was reprinted at least six times, but Beadle and Adams issued no follow-ups to this, the first science-fiction dime novel. This led to the publication of more “steam men” stories, stories of boy inventors and their creations (dime novels were intended for children), and eventually the fantastical science-fiction tales we have come to know today.
This story is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “YourTravel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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