Andrea here, musing on a question we authors get a LOT from readers—where do you get your inspiration for a story? Well, in the case of my Wrexford & Sloane Regency-set historical mystery series, the answer is science. Okay, okay, I know that doesn’t sound sexy. But . . . um, actually it is. Allow me to explain.
Think of all the techno-thrillers today—be it in books, movies, television—that are based technology and its effect on our lives. We’re all aware of what a hold technology has over us—and yes, it’s scary! Thus authors and screenwriters can use that to their advantage. But the idea of technology as both Good and Evil is nothing new. So I’ve had great fun using technology as the main plot point in my mysteries. The latest book in the series, Murder at Queen’s Landing, which releases in September, is no exception! I’ll get to that in a moment, let’s take a quick overview of the subject.
The Regency era is considered the the birth of the modern in so many many—art, music, literature, social idea—and of course science. Men of science (the word ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until the 1830s) were making momentous discoveries as worked to understand how the world around them worked. Geology, chemistry astronomy, metallurgy, steam power—it was heady stuff. And they used their discoveries to invent technical innovation.
Many of the great innovations were created by engineers—the name given to those who used the new knowledge in diverse field to create mechanical devices that changed the way traditional tasks were done. (I love that the word engineering derives from the Latin ingenium, which meant cleverness.) For example, the voltaic battery, the a device capable of creating electricity was created in 1800 by Alessandro Volta. (The voltaic battery features prominently in Murder at Kensington Palace) And “Puffing Billy” the first prototype for a steam locomotive, was created by William Hedley in 1813 (Hedley and his locomotive make a cameo appearance in my upcoming release)
But one of the most fascinating discoveries that I’ve made while researching technology in the Regency era revolves around Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine—considered the first computer!
As I said, the new ideas and new technology of the Industrial Revolution were turning the early 19th century world upside down. It was an exciting time for someone with imagination. Babbage was one of the new scientific thinkers leading the charge. His mind was constantly spinning with ideas on how to improve the ways things were done, and he used his practical skills to achieve many great accomplishments, from pioneering technical advances for lighthouse signaling to fine-tuning track designs for the first railroads. But it was in working on a way to create accurate mathematical tables that his genius really kicked into high gear.
Babbage was frustrated that many of the tables, which were calculated and typeset by hand, had so many mistakes. “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam,” he exclaimed to his good friend John Herschel, a famous astronomer. Herschel agreed with him that a machine would be far more accurate. So in 1821, Babbage decided to design one.
Math was hugely important in many aspects of everyday life in the 1800s. The trouble was, most of the standard printed math tables used in critical calculations were filled with errors. What Babbage was looking to create was a machine capable of crunching the numbers of complex equations like polynomials, logarithms and sines, which are all math functions that are used in such occupations as banking, insurance, ocean navigation, architecture, and military weapons technology. A section of the machine would then create a printing plate of the results, so that the accurate tables could be mass-produced. (For example, bankers use logarithms to calculate the rate of interest on an investment over a certain number of years. And rather than doing the tedious calculations by hand for all the variables, it’s far quicker and more efficient to have standard printed tables to use as a reference.)
It took six years of sketching in his notebooks (he called them his “scribbling books”) but by 1827, he had finished drawings. The design, which he named the Difference Engine, required 25,000 parts, each of which had to be specially made by hand, and the finished machine would weigh around 4 tons and stand 8’ tall x 4’ wide x 11’ long. Its ingenious system of brass rods, gears and rotating horizontal number wheels (each one was marked with the digits 0-9), allowed the Difference Engine to quickly spin through complicated math problems, once its operator had manually entered an equation to be solved and turned the hand crank. A marvel of precision engineering, it could “carry” numbers from one column to another and shift sums along the horizontal and vertical axes.
The British government was very interested in his idea because accurate math tables would be very helpful for the army, the navy and the finances of the country. They invested £17,500 in the project (which would have purchased two fully equipped battleships) allowing Babbage to hire Joseph Clement, a master toolmaker, to start making the parts.
Work progressed slowly, as it was an incredibly complicated design. But finally, in 1832, a small demonstration model was finished, and Babbage was able to show that his concept was working. However, the Engine’s development stalled in 1833 when Clement quit in a huff over money. Babbage, however, was not discouraged. He had already started working on designs for a more sophisticated Engine . . . And by this time he had teamed up with Ada Lovelace, a math genius—and the daughter of Lord Byron—to work on the complex mathematics of how such a machine could be programmed to do a variety of mind-boggling calculations.
Babbage’s machine never actually got built in his lifetime—it was far too technologically sophisticated for its time. But scientists recently built an actual model of it . . . and it worked!
I won’t give away any spoilers, but I hope you’ll find math and mechanical innovations—the inspiration for my latest plot—anything but boring in Murder at Queen’s Landing!
Do you worry about the threats from technology gone amuck? What’s your LEAST favorite piece of technology or tech innovation? (I think I’d vote to get rid of Twitter!) And lastly, do you mind science in a work of historical fiction? (Though it’s a whole genre unto itself!)