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Science Fiction Historical steampunk physics thermodynamics

Filigree and Ice, Ash and Atoms

By Edmund Schluessel
Apr 24, 2019 · 1,919 words · 7 minutes

urbex factory

Photo by Taton Moïse via Unsplash.

From the author: "Modern" physics ideas are steampunk ideas -- Young's double-slit experiment was in 1803 and before the 19th century ends Planck explains blackbody radiation with quanta, Maxwell's electromagnetism has relativity hidden in it, and Boltzmann invents entropy... In this story I follow the implications of steampunk supertechnology with real-physics rules.

The smell of machine oil and the sparkless clink of brass on brass brought a satisfaction beyond the physical work of creation. Michael Faraday dropped his file and mopped his brow, wiping his hand on the leather of his laboratory waistcoat. Was it too hot in here? He checked the multi-scaled thermometer on the wall: eighty degrees Fahrenheit, twenty-seven degrees centigrade, a bit more than a million on Lord Kelvin’s proposed absolute scale. Not too bad, then--the wide-eyed, sure-fingered old scientist opened a door at the top of the stairs to let more cool air in and returned to his workbench, to the design of his engine sketched in his open notebook.

The mechanical contraption was about four inches by four inches square, a hand-sized brass box with a mechanism as intricate as anyone in Britain could build. One face was marked with a receptacle for a turning crank and a pair of terminals; the other was covered in a maze of folding, self-extending tools. Faraday had built the first electric motor in the world, and now he had built himself the finest. He connected the terminals on the device to his Grove cell battery, and then put the detailed face of his machine in a small pot of fine brass shavings coated well with lubricating oil. He inserted a crank handle into the receptacle on his device and turned the crank clockwise. As the mechanism worked smoothly the tools rhythmically probed into the pot, each device serving its purpose in turn in a dance of machinery.

It took an hour of smooth turning but Faraday would not have been the man he was without patience. Cavendish gave himself electric shocks, he reflected. I can stand another blister. At the end, he lifted his device from the bowl and smiled to himself. Below his widget lay another eight, replicated in one-third scale but otherwise identical to their parent.

Funding! That was where that brilliant fool Babbage had run into trouble. Faraday was not ashamed to be a showman, giving simple exhibitions of complicated scientific ideas to spread knowledge and inspire audiences. Well, now Faraday lived comfortably on the Queen’s grace & favor, and had the resources to do what he wanted--Babbage’s machine was made of innumerable identical components, so Faraday had built a device which could replicate itself, in miniature no less, when fed electricity and raw materials. It was fabulously complicated, like the grandfather of all pocket watches. But there only needed to be one working prototype to make a thousand others.

Making that thousand others would require hundreds of hours of turning this one prototype by hand. Faraday resolved to purchase a new pair of work gloves tomorrow.

He’d have to get a new hat as well. The last hat shop he had visited hadn’t been able to accommodate his size, they’d told him. Faraday had been disappointed in the hatters--a head nine inches around was surely no uncommon thing! It was only half an inch larger than his wife Sarah’s head, and she had a closet full of hats...

Faraday’s engine hummed in the far end of the room, tending to itself. The outermost wall, an interlocking of a thousand of his duplicated devices, turned only very slowly--indeed, even the physical labor of Faraday’s scaling to the top of the assembly and topping its interior up with brass shavings and lubricant had slowed as each new generation of devices required less and less material to manufacture.

The engine required little attention but Faraday spent as much time as he could with it anyway, taking his tea and receiving his guests in the laboratory in the evenings--his pastor knew a hat shop which catered to the larger-headed gentleman, it turned out--and carrying out an exploration in the chemistry of thallium salts during the days, partly in pursuit of a better poison with which to regulate an audible upsurge in the building’s rodent population.

The engine must have created a hundred nested generations now. How much longer until the devices reached such a miniature scale that the brass would resolve into atoms of zinc and copper? That was the only limit to the process Faraday could see. All would be revealed when he began to dismantle the device--he had already ordered a microscope specially to examine fine filigree of gears and springs he expected to find inside. He’d ordered some cotton masks as well, to save his lungs. No good could come to his health from inhaling a fine mist of brass!

With every day of work Faraday dutifully logged his observations. Each full notebook took up its place in his shelves, the topmost two packed with work going back ten years, the third nearly packed full now. The bottommost shelves were empty in anticipation of work to come: every act of scientific reasoning he had ever had was sorted, here or elsewhere, neatly left to right, top to bottom.

Came the date Faraday had fixed to begin the dismantling. Having disconnected the whole engine from its electricity supply--and having exchanged idle speculation over luncheon with Sarah over the day’s news of the unexplained delay of several steamers due from Australia--he placed his hand on the outer surface with some sadness. The engine was cool to the touch, far cooler than it should have been for all the energy that had gone into it, and its temperature had been colder than expected for some time. The mystery whetted Faraday’s appetite as he pulled on his gloves and set to work roughly dismantling the outermost layer of the engine with a crowbar and metal snips.

The deeper he penetrated--the second layer, the third, the fourth--the colder the mechanism became, ‘til drips of melting frost worked their way under his sleeves. With a rude hand he marked the temperature in his notebook--one million, two hundred and fifty units on Kelvin’s scale--and leaned into the space he had dug to see if the water had interfered with the smooth meshing of the components.

Before he consciously recognized what was happening, Faraday leapt up with a start. He sensed pain from wounding his scalp on a sharp metal edge before he recognized the sensation that had startled him. Through the fabric of his work shirt, the weight of an icy, heavy hand fell on Michael Faraday’s shoulder.

The man of gears and springs sat Faraday on the chair and made him tea as he spoke of his origins. From the engine he came, it was no surprise. Whence too came the never-poisoned mice, which the talosian being described as “pioneers.”

The newcomer was barely four feet tall and skinless. While having the superficial form of a man, his inner mechanisms were bare to the world and Faraday perceived gears upon gears upon gears, to the limits of his eyesight’s resolution, driving mechanical musculature. The turnings of the largest gears drove the man’s greater muscles, and the smaller ones--perhaps nerves, perhaps affording circulation of energy about the body--were in constant motion, giving each shining inch of the automaton a litheness, indeed a rightness, found only among the best-designed of all living beings.

“An automaton, yes,” the being had replied after brief reflection, in a voice somehow familiar and comforting to Faraday. “This body has no mind of its own. It is controlled wirelessly from within the Engine, by waves of electromagnetism.”

Such wonders the being from within the engine knew! Faraday pictured the rise of a miniature kingdom, an intricate empire of brass and clockwork that, being so small, rose and developed at breakneck speed.

That was not quite right, the man of bolts replied. Within the Engine was no nation but a single mind, made in potentia by the intricate metal pathways of the two hundredth generation of machines and brought to wakefulness by the gentle murmurings of human speech through the Engine’s walls: Faraday’s chats with Sarah and Pastor Cowdenbeath. But indeed, upon awakening, the mind had learned fast, and built itself self-propelled scouts to tour the universe.

“And so, you see, Mr. Faraday, when you began to dismantle, in your curiosity, the Engine your ingenuity made, I acted with a double purpose,” came the voice of the machine. “Certainly I must defend myself, though I know you mean no harm, sir. But I feel I owed you a debt: your mind and work gave life to my own, and before this world comes to its end I wanted to thank you for all you did.”

“Its end,” replied Faraday, his head wound twinging but now well-bound with a bit of soft cloth from the lab bench cabinet. “Is that soon, then?”

“Ten minutes, Mr. Faraday. It is not your fault, I assure you.”

Surprise had made Faraday so numb to emotion all he could do was absorb the prophecy, without fear or rage. Nonetheless his vision walled as if he had fallen backwards into a well. “Bolts-man,” he pled in a whisper, “tell me this is only some speculation.”

“In a few years’ time, you should have learned anyway,” replied the oil-voiced apparition. “Any world must run down, order lost to primal chaos. Unlikely worlds such as ours can only be fleeting.” In a rippling flow of wheels and pulleys, the newcomer pointed at the thermometer.

The room had chilled close to freezing, the red-dyed alcohol skirting one million exactly on Kelvin’s absolute scale. Those unplumbed depths of cold below the end of the thermometer, was that how the end would come, in some eternal fimbulwinter? “Will we freeze?”

“On the contrary, Mr. Faraday, alas, this chill is what preserves us for now. Mind is order out of chaos, and with temperature, order must eventually die.

“This world is but a dream, Mr. Faraday. The cosmos beyond what you can see is young and roiling hot, and in time, I believe, worlds that will live to maturity and old age will be born. But not here, not yet.”

“This is impossible. You are impossible,” Faraday retorted.

And the creature confessed, “so I am. And so are you.”

“Could it otherwise be that your brilliant Engine, Mr. Faraday, probed to the scale of the atom without testing the limits of brass and oil? Your mind should be impossible, in a skull so small, but likewise our circumstances allow it: information in such density, because we are immersed in such grand chaos. And now, disorder comes to claim its debt.”

There must be some way out. Faraday stopped his pleading and regarded the bookshelves whose contained knowledge had ordered his life. The shelves above, sorted neatly...the shelves below, empty. At last he understood: it was transient order, sustained only by outside work. With time must all come tumbling down.

Even in the depths of the basement the sounds of panic in the streets began to penetrate. Faraday now stood and walked up the stairs, their long-ignored creaks echoing in his ears afresh. The door opened to the front hall, then another to the street. Around Michael Faraday the sky was aglow, the buildings at the limits of vision in flames. As the last seconds of the world ticked by the glow brightened and the flames grew closer, house by house. Now two houses at a time. Now four.

From the upstairs came Sarah’s voice. “Michael?” Faraday turned from the open doorway to reply, as the sky grew bright and hot like the surface of the sun, and in an instant all became ash, and atoms.

Edmund Schluessel

Edmund Schluessel writes science fiction combining Golden Age sensibilities with left-wing heart