Saturday, April 16, 2011

Steampunk, the Night Watchman, and Strange Objects

When I wrote The Nightwatchman Express, the plot centered around a strange device called the Crown Phoenix. It was an antique typewriter that an offstage character had turned into a mechanical version of a quantum computer.

Even though I intended to move time and space with my Crown Phoenix, I had to have an authentic starting point. This started my research into early keyboards and typewriters. I was amazed at what I found; the machines themselves were beautiful and ingenious.

The Hanson Typing Ball was perfect for my story. It's spiky, like a hedgehog, and the paper is held by a curved plate underneath.

This machine is beautiful as well as serviceable, and I felt it fit the story. The device in real life was developed in 1870. This was a bit early for my series, which is set in 1905 - 1908, but I reasoned that since Miriam, my main character, found the writing ball among her dead father's things it could have been hanging around for a while.

I changed the name to the Crown Phoenix, since the name Hansen Ball was a bit dull.  I also added a bit of machinery to the Ball so I could hide some quantum computing bits in its innards. In that  respect the Crown Phoenix was an amalgam of the Hanson Ball and a typewriter like the Bar-lock 6:

I love the top portion of this machine; it almost looks alive, like a mechanical beast. To add to the coolness, it rhymes with Warlock. Bar-lock appeared in the 1890's and was followed by a succession of other Bar-Locks, some with rounded rows of keys.

There were  other typewriters that I found enchanting: the spiky Blickensderfer, the rounded wooden Hammonds, the almost alien Lambert 1. You can see these and other machines at places like the Martin Howard collection.

In order to bend time and space to my will in my books, I had to modify the existing machines with some soft science and mathematics. I wrote a short story describing that process, a prequel to The Night Watchman Express, and I'll describe the math and science involved in October.

If you like typewriters, then check out these fonts. They are  designed by Richard Polt, and each one is based on actual typewriters. He  allowed me to use one for my covers, so he gets my vote for Cool Typewriter Guy.

Writer's research is always fun, and to extrapolate  from what you discover in a creative way is addictive. Next up : gramophones and bathyspheres!


Kara said...

Ooo - I love both of those typwriters! I had no idea that something like the Hanson writing ball existed. So very cool.

Julianne Carlile said...

Those are so cool.

I don't have any objects that reappear in my writing.

Alison said...

Aren't they amazing? I learned so much from my research. Things that we take for granted, like the ability to capitalize a letter and move the paper across with each keystroke were major advances at the time.

And compare these to the retro monsters of the 70's!!!!!

JDarrollHall said...

Nice blog... Love it Mrs. Editor...

LW said...

Very cool - you know I love me some gadgets.

Alison said...

There's nothing like a cool gadget!

J.L. Campbell said...

Nice to meet you Alison. Those are indeed interesting looking machines. I wonder how long it took to type anything using the Hanson Writing Ball and yes, the bottom one looks like it is alive.