Look at the spare tyre on that one!

This isn’t strictly steampunk, but it is a piece of Victoriana and I think it’s worth posting. Check this creepy advert out!

 creepy michelin man

This 1898 advert was the first to depict the Michelin Man. In case you’re wondering what the hell is going on, a man made of tyres is quoting Horace’s Odes while giving a toast at an upscale banquet of some sort while his zombie friends look on enviously.

Wait, that doesn’t clear anything up. Well, the Latin quote means, “Now is the time to drink.” And a tyre-man drinks broken glass, so… no.

Ah, okay, apparently the French below that means, “That is to say, to your health! The Michelin tyre drinks the obstacle!”

Right, that’s it, I’m going to look this thing up.

Okay, right, the slogan “The Michelin tyre drinks all obstacles!” comes from André Michelin in 1893. The implication that the tyre attracts nails and broken glass rather than resists them was seemingly not noted at the time. The Michelin Man himself was devised by André’s brother Édouard in 1894, when at a trade fair he noticed a stack of tyres in the rough shape of a man. In 1898, the Michelin brothers went to cartoonist O’Galop to come up with an advert and, rather than go for something involving roads, bicycles or anything directly relevant, they decided to recycle a rejected beer advert and use their 1893 slogan. Was a discount involved? It is a mystery.

So that’s how the Michelin Man came to be, and also how he came to have his other name, Bibendum. He’s changed a lot since he was a creepy eyeless Doctor Who villain, but nevertheless he remains one of the most recognisable advertising icons. I still don’t quite trust him, though.




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Filed under Advertising, Art, On the road

Emett a loss to describe this.

All this talk of steampunk locomotives reminds me of an oddity from 1951. Technically it’s not steampunk – it wasn’t powered by steam and punks wouldn’t be invented for another quarter-century – but it’s definitely in the same ballpark.

NeptuneA little background: Rowland Emett was a popular British cartoonist from the Second World War onwards, who specialised in whimsical machinery. He was particularly known for his caricatures of steam trains, which he used to simultaneously satirise present developments on Britain’s railways while paying tribute to the real-life eccentricities of the country’s light railways and branch lines (so much so, in fact, that the RAF used to refer to a successful hit on a branch line train as “strafing an Emett”). He later moved into kinetic sculptures, some of which you may have seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for which Emett provided the various inventions of Caractacus Potts.

NellieIn 1951, the Festival of Britain was held in London as a showcase of the best of Britain, to life people’s morale after five years of post-war austerity, and one of the attractions they had planned was a narrow gauge railway based on Emett’s well-known cartoons. One might argue that an exhibit portraying British Railways as being a little bit rubbish isn’t exactly in the futuristic spirit of the Festival, but no one consulted me (as usual). The line was known as the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway.

Far Tottering StationEmett designed the cosmetic bits of the locomotives which, in his standard style, were top-heavy things apparently made up of any old bits and bobs. One was apparently converted from a paddle steamer. Another was reminiscent of an airship. Sadly, they weren’t actually steam powered, the gubbins inside being diesel-powered to a standard design by miniature railway engineer Harry Barlow. Nevertheless, you couldn’t mistake it for anything other than an Emett railway, with its signs warning people, “Do NOT Tease the Engine” and “Trains Cross Here – So There!”

wild gooseThe line was an immensely popular attraction in its two years of existence, carrying over two million passengers. The line was later rebuilt in Battersea Park, but for whatever reason it was decided to rebuild it as a more conventional miniature railway, in which form it survived until 1974. I’m told that the aforementioned mechanical gubbins from the locomotives survives under less interesting locomotives, but don’t quote me on that. The nameplate from one of the engines is in the Museum of London’s collection.

Maybe it’s not steampunk, but damned if I can think of anything else to call it.

Mosley, Barlow & van Zeller, Peter, Fifteen Inch Gauge Railways, David & Charles, UK 1986. ISBN 0-7153-8694-8


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Filed under Gadgets and gewgaws, It runs on rails, Pop goes the diesel, Purely for pleasure

The ultimate steampunk accessory?

Quite some time ago, a good friend of mine told me, quite casually, that her dad happened to have a steam locomotive in Sweden that he wasn’t using. On inquiring about this last night, she told me that the locomotive in question had since been sold along with the land on which it was plinthed. The reason I bring this up is because, upon checking this blog this morning, I received a communication from a curator at Sveriges Järnvägsmuseum (the Swedish Railway Museum to you) informing me of a project that I think will be of interest to all browsers of this blog.


This is the engine.

Pause while I adopt the voice of a mad scientist. The project is nothing less than the creation of… A REAL LIFE STEAMPUNK LOCOMOTIVE!

For a festival next year, the Upsala-Gefle Ångpunksällskap have been lent this already rather handsome locomotive, which they intend to cosmetically rebuild in the steampunk style.

And here’s where things get interesting. They’re looking for designs from regular folks like yourself. The details of the competition can be found here, closing date is June 6th 2013, so get your thinking caps and brass goggles on and have a go!

In the original communication, the curator apologised for being off-topic, but really what could be more on-topic for a blog about real-life steampunk-esque machines? I look forward to seeing the results…

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Filed under It runs on rails, Steam powered

Donkey work

 steam_donkey_800Hey guys, I don’t know if you can use this, but this thing here is what we call a “steam donkey.” These were basically mobile steam-powered winches used for heavy haulage, most commonly in logging. Logging involved some truly bizarre machines in the steam age, often home-made and maintained, and I suspect this will be far from the last logging device to show up here.

Your actual steam donkey basically consisted of a vertical boiler powering a large cable drum, the whole thing being mounted on skids so that it could be moved from site to site, wherever it was needed.

steam_donkey_9The engineer-operators of such machines were known as “donkey punchers,” which is a hell of a title to put on your CV. The people who attached the cables to whatever needed to be pulled were called “choker-setters” and the chap who operated the whistle was known as a “whistle-punk.” It might sound odd to employ a man just to sound the whistle, but this was in fact crucial to the safe operation of the donkey. While the donkey-puncher was punching his donkey, so to speak, he would be unable to concentrate on the choker-setters. The whistle-punk used a complex code of whistle sounds to communicate between puncher and setters to ensure that the correct sequence of actions was followed and no time was wasted, legs were pulled off &c.

Steam donkeys appeared in the 1880s (though similar steam engines were in use long before then) and lasted until the widespread adoption of diesel tractors and winches rendered them obsolete – in some cases, as late as the 1960s. Incredibly, one is in commercial service today, albeit on a small scale, at the McLean Mill National Historic Site.

As well as simply hauling logs, donkeys were useful for powering other heavy machinery on site, such as cranes and loaders. They could also move themselves – if you attached the cable to something solid enough, the donkey could winch itself along.

steam_donkey_1Not all were used in logging. As you might imagine, such machines were used more-or-less anywhere that could do with a heavy hauler – mines, factories and dockyards all made use of them.

You’d be hard-pressed to write a steampunk story about one (although there’s a challenge for you if you want one), but they could add a little colour to an industrial scene.


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Filed under Heavy plant, Logging, Steam powered, Uncategorized

A Walk in the Countryside

Sometimes I come across a machine so bizarro that I think I must have misread something and I have to go back and check. Such is the 1878 Darby Pedestrian Broadside Digger.

I don’t know where to begin describing this utterly Heath Robinson device. It’s a kind of agricultural tractor, but that ain’t the half of it. Mr T. C. Darby devised it as a labour-saving machine that would do the work of twelve men with forks – somehow he came up with a mechanism that allowed each fork to dig in, turn the soil and withdraw. It was built by W & S Eddington of Chelmsford, so evidently the only way really is Essex.

Not strange enough? It drove sideways. Still not strange enough? Well, you can’t quite see it here, but it could walk. It had six legs. Could it run? I hope not, but apparently it could jump, and often did.

A later version had eight legs and wheels, because why not? I believe this is it here:

Despite being quite lightweight, hence the jumping, it never really succeeded in replacing conventional traction engines and so, sadly, is just a footnote in agricultural history. Ha, foot-note.

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Filed under Down on the farm, Steam powered


I have to admit that I know almost nothing about firearms, but nevertheless they do seem to be a pretty popular subject among steampunk folk. Fortunately, today I came across an article on Cracked.com that should go some way to remedying this. It’s dedicated to strange and often inadvisable weaponry. My favourite was the gun-sword-cane. Enjoy!

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Filed under Gadgets and gewgaws, Military matters

A Transport of Delight

Even at the height of the age of steam, there were some applications for which steam power was not considered to be terribly well-suited. As a general rule, anything that was intended to run on urban streets was a bit of a no-no, due to smoke pollution and the possibility of frightening the horses. Legislation, notably the 1865 Road Locomotives Act that limited all self-powered vehicles to walking pace, made the idea even less appealing. So steam buses didn’t come along until the 1890s, when the less strict 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act made them a bit more practical.

In mechanical terms, steam buses weren’t particularly special. Take a regular horse-drawn omnibus body, stick it on the chassis of a steam lorry, you’re done. Some used smaller engines than your average steam lorry, due to the lighter load, and some were coke-fired to reduce emissions.

They were never hugely popular, being heavy, slow and often uneconomical. They also weren’t so good on hills as compared to a horse. By the time of the First World War, petrol buses were already becoming a familiar sight, and so many companies went straight from horses to internal combustion engines. Despite a brief surge in popularity in the 1920s (when oil-fired steam engines were cheaper than petrol-powered ones), they never really got off the ground.

Oddly enough, there are a few newly-constructed steam buses around today. Several steam lorries survive, and converting these into buses by rebuilding the back end gives you a machine that appeals to tourists and also can pay its way. One such vehicle, ‘Elizabeth,’ operates today in Whitby, Yorkshire. Apparently in setting up this service, her owners ran into a slight bureaucratic issue due to the regulations concerning exhaust pipes – Elizabeth’s “exhaust pipe” is a chimney up at the front.




Filed under On the road, Steam powered