I have written before (here) about what I believe underlies the enduring pop-cultural fascination with the speculative/alternate-historical fiction genre known as Steampunk. My opinion in a nutshell is this: In a world where the technologies driving it are fast becoming intangible, Steampunk offers a playground for the imagination where the most advanced and outlandish of technological marvels are crafted, by hand, using gears and wheels; where technology is, quite literally, clockwork. In this context, a couple of passages that I came across while reading Genius, James Gleick’s wonderful biography of Richard Feynman, piqued my interest. So here’s the evocative and eloquent Gleick, describing an era when radio sets were driven by more than …
“… a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon …”
Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening cabinets and eviscerating their parents’ old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio set’s messy innards—so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes, eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips … The transistor, a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost well-used path into science.
“… its essential magic …”
… one could look at the circuit and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing … a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. Its parts expressed their function, once he learned to break the code of wires, resistors, crystals, and capacitors … The mechanism responded to the touch … Still, the radio was not like a watch, with gears and wheels. It was already one step removed from the mechanical world. Its essential magic was invisible after all. The crystal, motionless, captured waves of electromagnetic radiation from the ether.