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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Steampunk: Artificial Limbs

Updated: Jun 13

Artificial limbs are probably one of the most iconic and prolific elements of the Steampunk genre.

You’ll see a lot of artwork and cosplay with characters sporting these. Usually, these will always have an old fashioned yet anachronistic design. Importantly, they will always be practical and functional, while also being intricately designed. They will be Victorian fantasies but using the technology of the era.


This is not a case of ‘glueing gears on it’ as they say – these limbs are required to work in causally and in literature, they’re required to serve a purpose. Either to a character, a theme or plot. you can’t just chuck in a character with a clockwork leg to make it steampunk.


History


Artificial limbs aren’t modern creations by any means. While there is evidence that there have been prosthetic limbs since 300 BCE, and the ancient Greeks and Romans were well familiar them too, it wasn’t until the late fifteenth century doctors really began to put some thought into it. France and Switzerland were some of the great pioneers in this area, producing artificial limbs throughout the late 15th century through the 19th century.


In the early 1800s, there was even a ballad composed about a man who, after losing his arm in the Napoleonic Wars, replaces it with a steam arm.


“The Steam Arm” Ballad of 1834-35


He went at once, strange it may seem, To have one made to work by steam, For a ray of hope began to gleam, That force of arms would win her esteem. Ri too ral, etc. The limb was finished, and fixed unto His stump of a soldier neat and true; You’d have thought it there by nature grew, For it stuck to its place as tight as glue. Ri too ral, etc.

As in true Victorian fashion, the song goes on and the man ends up beating up a policeman, the mayor and his wife. This is a people who thought up ‘Punch and Judy’ after all. Anyway, if you want to see the real one, it’s here.


Man Vs Machine


Why authors like them isn’t a great mystery. It gives a character an edge. An artificial limb is a giant foghorn declaring backstory here. People don’t just get a prosthetic limb so there’s probably a story to go with it. And then there’s the enviable subplot of man versus machine to explore, which is always a fun one.


Not to mention a pointed one, not only in a Victorian context where many people were losing their jobs to machines but in a modern-day context where many people are…. losing their jobs to machines.


Huh. Nice to know we’ve moved on.


Not to mention, in this adventure genre where characters should expect to find themselves in exciting and perilous circumstances every second chapter, an arm which has a grappling hook or a leg which conceals a shotgun wouldn’t go amiss. As long as it is alluded to early in the story and any suggestion of Chekhov’s Gun avoided, your readers won’t be knocked off-balance if your characters artificial limb can become a steamboat.


The Steampunk aesthetic has always been concerned with the living machine. The pile of cogs and gears taking on a presence in the story, being imbued with a kind of irreverence. This technological optimism is characteristic of steampunk, as technology is seen both as a wonderous and revolutionary force, but also a source of concern and danger. So when these machines, with all their symbology, are combined physically with a person it makes a powerful statement within the narrative. That technology both enhances and replaces humanity.


It’s a fascinating dynamic in this genre of fiction and one which is worth exploring!


If you're after some more Steampunk, there's a list of my ever-growing post series:


Photo by Josh Redd on Unsplash

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