History Making robots
> ||5 January 2013|
rainerd, Johnny. Johnny Brainerd was the creation of Edward S. Ellis, and despite Brainerd's and Ellis' lone appearance here they deserve pride of place, for they are both responsible for creating the Edisonade genre which was so dominant in dime literature for several decades.
Edward S. Ellis was a New Jersey teacher and principal. He was also a very successful writer--so successful that he gave up on education to become a full-time writer, a very risky career move in the early 1870s. Although the preponderance of his work was histories and historical biographies (like The Life of Davy Crockett (1884) and Thomas Jefferson (1898), which can be found here at the Project Gutenberg archive), he also wrote a number of dime novels. By far his most successful (over the long-run) was "The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies," which first appeared in Irwin P. Beadle's American Novels #45 (August, 1868) before being turned into a novel and reprinted many times over.
Johnny Brainerd, as is so often the case in popular literature, set the stereotype of the Edisonade inventor but was superior to the imitations which followed. He is not the too-perfect, upright White White White prig that the Frank Reade, Jrs and the Tom Edison Jrs. were; Johnny Brainerd, Edisonade though he is, is a bit closer to someone that might conceivably exist.
Johnny Brainerd is a small, hunch-backed dwarf, the teenaged son of a widow whose only means of support are the patents that his dead father, an ingenious mechanic, had secured. As a bright-eyed child in St. Louis he was continually inventing things--wonderful toys, miniature steam boats and locomotives that were perfect and operational in every way, a clock that kept perfect time, a working telegraph, and so on. All of these he created MacGyver-style, using only a jackknife, hammer and chisel.
But he ran out of things to invent, and complained to his mother, who suggested that he build "a man that shall go by steam." This idea gripped wee Johnny, and he spent "several weeks in thought" before beginning to construct it. After a series of false starts he managed to make the Steam Man--which is not an android but merely an engine in the shape of a man.
Brainerd is, in personality, a very nice guy (if you overlook the killing of the Indians, I mean). "When he went to school, he was a general favorite with teachers and pupils. The former loved him for his sweetness and disposition and his remarkable proficiency in all studies, while the latter based their affection chiefly upon the fact that he never refused to assist any of them at their tasks, while with the pocket-knife which be carried he constructed toys, which were their delight."
The description of the Steam Man given in the text is as follows:
It was about ten feet in hight [sic], measuring to the top of the "stove-pipe hat," which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball [sic] players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed differed from a human being.It tows behind it a wagon (also specially designed by Johnny, the wagon is durable, with heavy springs and a canvas covering) in which Johnny Brainerd and any passengers ride and which carries the wood to feed the Steam Man. Obviously the weakness of the S.M. is that, as a steam-engine, it has to be continually fed or it will run out of steam. And it moves jerkily at first. But once it builds up a full head of steam it's capable of moving 30 miles an hour (no small feat, that, given the time and place in which it's operating) and gliding "almost as smoothly as if running a railroad." It lacks a front lamp, but it does have a locomotive whistle which is very useful in frightening away the "savages."
In the knapsack were the valves, buy which the steam or water was examined. In front was a painted imitation of a vest, in which a door opened to receive the fuel, which, together with the water, was carried in the wagon, a pipe running along the shaft and connecting with the boiler.
The lines which the driver held controlled the course of the steam man; thus, by pulling the strap on the right, a deflection was caused which turned it in that direction, and the same acted on the other side. A small rod, which ran along the right shaft, let out or shut off the steam, as was desired, while a cord, running along the left, controlled the whistle at the nose.
The legs of this extraordinary mechanism were fully a yard apart, so as to avoid the danger of its upsetting, and at the same time, there was given more room for the play of the delicate machinery within. Long, sharp, spike-like projections adorned the soles of the immense foot, so that there was little danger of its slipping, while the length of the legs showed that, under favorable circumstances, the steam man must be capable of very great speed.
Little Johnny, sweet-faced and bright-eyed despite his deformities, takes up with the "strong, hardy, bronzed trapper" Baldy Bicknell, the "Huge Hunter" of the story's title, and the pair head west to go hunting for gold and scaring the "injins."
They use the Steam Man to frighten off and escape from the "red-skins" (who of course are too primitive to know what the invention of a White Man would do and so are frightened away). Brainerd also tries to frighten off a buffalo, but it charges and hits the SM, though it doesn't "materially injure" the machine. He also kills a bear (typically for an Edisonade, joyfully despoiling the wilderness).
"With the large amount of money realized from his western trip, Johnny Brainerd is educating himself at one the best schools in the country. When be shall have completed his course, it is his intention to construct another steam man, capable of more wonderful performances than the first." He has also, earlier in the novel, mentioned possibly making "steam horses" in the future--similar, perhaps, to Jack Wright's electric deer?
The Huge Hunter is not a good novel, even by the standards of the time, being full of ethnic stereotyping. But it deserves to be remembered, as does Brainerd, because of its influence on the popular literature of the time.