Mentions of gadgets in literature
April 16, 2018 2:19 PM   Subscribe

I was reading one of the excellent Sherlock Holmes short stories, though I don't recall which one, and was struck by the off-hand mention of a telephone. I know that this and many other devices had a presence in the 19th century, but am curious about their depiction in literature. How did "gadgets," enter the popular consciousness?

Can anybody cite interesting/unusual instances of this kind of thing in period fiction? IT doesn't have to be telephones specifically, I'm also curious about other things we take for granted in the modern era, like cars, airplanes, and so forth. I wonder how these things go from "an interesting account in the newspaper," to being things everyone has heard of, if not seen, if that makes sense.
posted by Alensin to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
In Li Yu's Twelve Towers (written ca. 1658; see also the abridged translation, searchable at Amazon, which definitely has this too), there's a story about someone using a telescope to trick his bride-to-be into thinking he's a semi-omniscient immortal. The story feels didactic and comments on lenses/mirrors in a manner suggesting the reader might not otherwise be familiar with their uses in telescopes.
posted by cpound at 2:48 PM on April 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Dracula (1897) is full of gadgets and technology, I assume deliberately. Dr. Seward has a phonograph he uses to dictate his diary, Mina has a typewriter, Harker has a Kodak camera, and Van Helsing uses blood transfusion equipment.
posted by rollick at 3:29 PM on April 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

This is kinda coming at your question backwards, because it's nonfiction, but John Tresch's The Romantic Machine explores how technological development fuels the cultural imagination of the early 19th century, including its influences on literature, and it is a delightful read.
posted by halation at 5:38 PM on April 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Just to expand on Sherlock Holmes and telephones it's noticeable that the telephone is absent from the first stories but then does begin to appear in the later ones. The telephone is sufficiently unusual in one of the references that the text refers to the experience of listening to someone using it and not being able to hear both sides of the conversation.

Motor cars are almost entirely absent from SH stories the only exception, I believe, is in "His Last Bow" which is set in 1914, published in 1917, and not only features cars but uses the size and styling of a "German car" as a metaphor for the concern British should feel for German military forces.

There is a SH story in which an air gun is used. The capabilities of this air gun are unlike any modern day air gun that I'm aware of but it's definitely meant to be bit of a "gadget" being novel, powerful and silent.

Just in passing I would say that the use of telegrams and postal service are extraordinary. Telegrams within London are delivered within in an hour and sending a letter and it being received the same day is nothing to comment on.
posted by southof40 at 5:41 PM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is fascinating stuff so far, thanks all. That non-fiction book in particular seems like a great resource.

I was reading my first Anthony Trollope novel, Barchester Towers, and it talks about the electric telegraph office as early as 1857. The character in question explains that you just need to copy a message onto "one of their slips," and pay them half a crown.

I don't know why I find tracing the development of this kind of thing so engaging. :)
posted by Alensin at 6:01 PM on April 16, 2018

This isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but it might interest you. In Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, published in 1759, there’s a whole long passage where an inventor tells Rasselas about a flying machine he’s working on, but says Rasselas must promise not to tell anyone about it because of the profound destruction possible if such a machine is used for war.
posted by FencingGal at 6:54 PM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

More gadgetry in Dracula: Lots of Telegram use, quick train trips and overnight trips between London and Amsterdam.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:52 AM on April 17, 2018

Another non-fiction resource for you: "The Information" by James Gleick is fascinating on the advent of things like telegraph systems. It shows how they led to profound changes like everyone in a given country keeping to the same time - previously, 12 o'clock in your town would not necessarily be 12 o'clock in the next town over!
posted by cloudsinvenice at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another Sherlock Holmes example - the reference to "the Vegetarian Restaurant" in 'The Red-Headed League', first published in 1891. An ex of mine, while we were watching the splendid Granada adaptation together, scoffed when Holmes mentioned it, and ascribed its inclusion in the episode to lazily anachronistic scriptwriting, until I pointed out its presence in the original text of REDH.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 2:22 PM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

P.S. Not a gadget, however - apologies, I focused on the "surprise at anachronistic-sounding thing" part of your question, rather than your actual specific inquiry about gadget-type items. Mea culpa!
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 2:29 PM on April 17, 2018

There’s a fascinating Victorian romance novel, Wired Love, about a romance between two telegraph operators. They are very familiar with the technology, of course, but the way the author describes it makes it clear that everyone else has no idea about the ways the operators use the technology.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:56 PM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

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