A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel.

mechanical chair It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I cannot include this TOTALLY LEGIT steam-powered wheelchair from 1811 in my novels, because it will look steampunk. Even though it is a real thing — or at least was proposed as a real thing and published in Ackerman’s, it is so out of keeping with what people imagine the Regency era to be like, that there’s no way to include it without it appearing to be an invention of mine.

Sure, I could expend energy and wordcount to making people believe that it fits into the story, but they will never, ever, believe that I didn’t make it up. Since I’m not writing steampunk with the Glamourist Histories, it will make the books feel like something that they aren’t. If the plot in Of Noble Family  turned upon it, that might be worth it. Since it doesn’t, I just have to sigh over the chair.

Also… the fact that this was invented by a guy named Merlin?

No. Way. No way could I ever get anyone to buy into it as a real historical thing. The reason people say, “You can’t make this stuff up” is that you can, but no one will believe you.

But oooooh…. Isn’t it cool?

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35 Responses

  1. Delia

    So, if you can’t use it, that means I (who am actually writing a steampunk novel) can. And everyone will think I’ve invented it.


      1. Nene

        Thank you for the article! I have steam and spring powered wheelchairs in my book (didn’t find this when I did research, I might not have gone back far enough), but now I can give those a pedigree that’s older than I thought. Good stuff.

  2. Alys B. Cohen

    You can fit this in. A character could briefly bring up some strange contraption she saw it in the newest edition of Ackermann’s, and someone else scoff about how it’s not possible. The device itself needn’t be in the book, but you could fit in a mention. It would be like a character in a 1940’s novel talking about how her latest Look magazine showed a drawing for a baby cradle you installed out the window, and someone else saying that sounds dangerous. It’s totally legit, and was patented. Readers now would likely see a steam-powered wheelchair in a magazine as one of those hokey inventions in an old magazine.

    1. Alys B. Cohen

      A side character would be fascinated with Richard Trevithick, whose inventions led to the first steam-powered engine in 1804, and steam being hailed as a new power source. This character could try to build it and have no luck, and then move on to trying to make something else, or declaring that steam power is for brighter minds.

      If would look steam punk if it actually works. So that’s the line. Don’t actually have it work.

    2. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Alas, I swore by the great horned spoon to deliver the eye of scorn to the first person who told me how I can fit it in.

      I know I could make it fit into the world, but specifically because it is steam-powered, this particular device will always, always feel steampunk.

  3. Sara

    I totally have a head cannon where this is in use in Of Noble Family. There may also be diabolical laughter as its rider zips around the house.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Speaking of head cannon, I quote from the article that accompanied it in 1811. ::ahem::

      “A suitable construction might be built upon it to enable it to carry a small cannon, which should be, both for itself and its operators, completely unassailable by the enemy, as well as, by the singular rapidity of its evolutions, terribly and unusually destructive.”

  4. Jesper Haglund

    You could always use it off-stage by someone mentioning have it tragically killed someone’s aunt/neighbour/parish priest by having them test an (as it turns out) not yet functioning prototype version, and then bring in a functioning version later… Though I guess that doesn’t really solve the steampunk issue, does it?

    Also, what kind of steamy things are allowed in modern Regency-era-set fiction?

    1. Sally

      I’m fairly certain that was a Monty Python sketch. Took out the vicar and the maiden aunt. Or at least in my head it is now.

    2. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      If it were book one in the series, I could get away with it. In the last book? It’ll feel like something out of left field, no matter what I do.

      As for allowable steam in the Regency, in general? A steam carriage rolled through the streets of London in 1804. In 1829 there was a regular steam carriage line that ran between London and Bath.

  5. Madeleine Robins

    I hate finding the absolutely perfect thing and realizing that using it will require a page of setup so that the reader doesn’t immediately think I made it up. So frustrating. I suppose Jane could see it whilst leafing through the latest number of Ackerman’s and comment upon it to Vincent… no, trying too hard.

    It’s a splendid thing, though.

  6. Tanya

    But, but…the actual Gouty Chair that was sold didn’t include a portable steam engine. The steam engine was an idea of something to add — and it’s not clear if a steam-powered prototype was even made. You could totally use the mechanical Merlin Chair.

    I understand that the steam-powered Gouty Chair is a cooler thing. If only you’d introduced a character who tinkers, and who’s fascinated with new-fangled technology such as steam engines, and who’s always looking for practical applications that don’t quite work!

    On the other hand, another cool thing that was in one of the links was a tea table with a samovar that rotated and filled the cups automatically (operated with a foot pedal).

  7. JR Holmes

    And, of course, without the steam engine, it is a pretty impractical device for a wheelchair. Turning the windlass handles to move the very small wheels wouldn’t have much mechanical advantage and would be pretty slow going. And the method they have of steering, which involves engaging and disengaging the gears leading from the handles to the drive wheels isn’t an easy thing to accomplish by the invalid either.

    Get one without the expensive and, for the time, experimental steam engine, and they would either give up on it in disgust or put it aside until they can get the steam engine addition (which would add that whole Wild Wild West vibe to it).

      1. Sally

        I thought it sounded way too complicated and impractical too. How amazing that it worked well even without the steam engine. I’d sure rather turn little winch-y things than the giant wheels we have on chairs now (a lot more sanitary too) — and it reclined to boot!

  8. Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

    Sadly, the owner of the blog at the Lerlin link has completely changed all the links on his blog:

    “My website and blog have been updated.

    As a result the old direct links to the blog posts have changed, they are still here. To find them please put the title or part of it in the search box in the sidebar and that will take you to the appropriate post.

    I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

    Thus, I must start an independent search for the wheelchair! Merlin, wheelchair, etc. not bringing it up. (I am supposed to be working…)

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