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Author Topic: The first steampunk book I ever read...I bet it isn't what you expected  (Read 5645 times)
RJBowman
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« on: June 13, 2013, 12:11:12 am »



This book was published in 1982. Excluding the works of nineteenth century writers like Wells and Verne, this was the first steampunk fiction I ever read.

Yes, it was an educational book.

In the early 1980's, home computers boomed. Software was scarce in the beginning, but almost every computer came loaded with a BASIC language (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) interpreter, and included a manual that explained how to write simple programs in that language. If you were a home computer user in those days, you probably at least tinkered a little bit with BASIC programming.

BASIC programming was offered at some forward-looking high schools, but was not universally available. Mass market books were produced to provide reference and informal curricula for self-taught  computer users. The book shown in the above photo was one of these books.

I read a review of "Elementary BASIC" in Compute magazine when the book was first published. When the book arrived on the shelf of my local library, I was the first person to check it out.

The book contains several short stories in which Sherlock Holmes uses Babbage's Analytical Engine to solve crimes. The mysteries are all structured to provide a rudimentary data processing task that the reader can program on his own home computer. Sample program code is provided in the text.

The introduction explains that these stories are from newly found manuscripts from Dr. Watson himself. It is explained that the real analytical engine used its own idiosyncratic language, but in the editing of the book, the programs were converted to modern computer languages that would be familiar to modern readers. Another edition of the book was titled "Elementary Pascal".

Is this a significant work in the history of steampunk?  I think that it was. It was probably the first book to present an alternate history in which Babbage's machine was completed and put to practical use. And though previous works had paired Holmes with real world persons such as Sigmond Freud (The Seven Percent Solution) and contemporaneous literary characters such as Count Dracula (The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count et al), this may have been the first work to place him in an alternate history with steampunk-style technology (discounting any futuristic technology found in actual Doyle stories).

And the book was published in 1982, and publicized in major computer magazines. I'd be willing to bet that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling were aware of the book's existence.
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Nikola Tesla
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« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2013, 11:26:05 pm »

I seem to remember seeing that, and I'll bet you are right about Gibson and Sterling.
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pakled05
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« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2013, 07:38:24 am »

I remember seeing this, but never read it. Did Basic back then, but it never really caught on. There used to be a column in some waaay oversized PC magazine called 'Basic, the People's Language'...Wink

Actually, the first Steampunk novel I read was called 'Into the Aether' by a Mr. Lupoff. Can't find it now to save me life...Wink
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Arabella Periscope
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« Reply #3 on: July 07, 2013, 11:21:49 pm »

That book is wonderful.  It ought to be preserved like a Book of Hours in some Steampunk Museum on a lectern and all credit given to the authors.  An inspired idea.  What a pity its content is (presumably, I wouldn't know) obsolete.  Could it not be prepared in a new edition?  I suppose everyone knows the mysteries at birth now.
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RJBowman
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« Reply #4 on: July 08, 2013, 05:42:00 am »

The problem is that this book was to instruct the reader about 1980's computers, which usually booted directly to basic with a command line prompt. This was actually a good setup, which encouraged people to experiment with the basic, and created a generation of computer users familiar with programming.

New computers boot up to a desktop screen and a start button, which encourage people to run stock application software, and is creating a generation of computer users familiar with chat room anagrams.

Yep, current computers don't come with any sort of interpreter or compiler that allows the user to try out the examples in a book like this. Such software is easily found and available for free, but few use it.

In short, the book was designed to appeal to a computer culture that no longer exists. More's the pity.
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pakled05
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« Reply #5 on: July 09, 2013, 04:43:42 am »

The only drawback (and that was later, once the Windoze era started) is that Basic was an interpreted language, i.e., every command had to be (forgive me, it's been decades) converted and deconverted.

The was actually something called a Basic 4 minicomputer that used Basic as an operating system! I was once told to sort 4,000 records, go to lunch, take an hour, and when I got back, it was still sorting! It had, IIRC, something like a 20" hard disk (1 platter, the thing weighed something in the 'hefty' region), and the 'naughty' picture in the OS was Bridget Bardot on a stool, made of x's, o's, and *s...Wink Ah, the 80s...Wink

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RJBowman
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« Reply #6 on: July 09, 2013, 05:00:20 am »

I remember being told by a computer store employee that the IBM PC did not have a built-in BASIC. Just a command line that did simple disk operations, loaded executable code, and ran it. The Macintosh was the second microcomputer that I encountered that lacked a built-in BASIC. And those two machines won the war.
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S.C. Barrus
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« Reply #7 on: July 16, 2013, 12:49:43 am »

That's pretty cool, and an inventive way to teach programming. I'm definitely one of the generation who grew up using applications and can't write a line of code other than basic HTML.
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GCCC
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« Reply #8 on: February 18, 2014, 10:07:01 am »

@pakled05:  The book is available here:

http://www.amazon.com/Into-The-Aether-Richard-Lupoff/dp/B000B7RDLQ

For everyone else, Elementary Basic is available (but pricey for used!):

http://www.amazon.com/Elementary-BASIC-Chronicled-John-H-Watson/dp/0006366295

Hope this helps!
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Keith_Beef
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« Reply #9 on: February 18, 2014, 03:11:47 pm »

The problem is that this book was to instruct the reader about 1980's computers, which usually booted directly to basic with a command line prompt. This was actually a good setup, which encouraged people to experiment with the basic, and created a generation of computer users familiar with programming.

New computers boot up to a desktop screen and a start button, which encourage people to run stock application software, and is creating a generation of computer users familiar with chat room anagrams.

Yep, current computers don't come with any sort of interpreter or compiler that allows the user to try out the examples in a book like this. Such software is easily found and available for free, but few use it.

In short, the book was designed to appeal to a computer culture that no longer exists. More's the pity.

It's perhaps a bit sad that the vast majority of people who buy a computer never write so much as a "Hello, World" program. But that's not what they buy their computers for, anyway.

My computers have more interpreters and compilers than I could shake a stick at, let alone use for programming…

I have, at one time or another, written in Basic (at least a dozen varieties, including some that were compiled to machine code), B, BCPL, FORTH, FORTRAN, COBOL, Z80 assembly language, Logo, DOS, C, C++, Pascal, Python, Perl, TCL (and Tk), Bash, Awk and sed, Java, even JCL (Job Control Language for IBM System 360) and a couple of others whose names escape me for now (and that's not mentioning things like Javascript/ECMAscript, HTML, XML and PostScript). At the moment, I'm having a go at learning R at the same time as trying to brush up my knowledge of statistics. Some of those in the list above are not available for my current computers, but I think that I could probably get them running through virtual machines and emulators.

I know that among the other languages I have available to me are Ada, Haskell, Smalltalk, Lisp, Caml, Lua, Scheme, Erlang, Eiffel, REXX, Ruby, Scala… if I were to dig around, I could probably come up with a dozen or two more.


The
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pakled05
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« Reply #10 on: February 19, 2014, 06:08:08 am »

Py yiminy, that's the very book, and same cover too! Thx!

I remember Cobol...punched cards, control cards, and model numbers with only 2 digits...Wink of course I'd never admit that in an interview...Wink RPG II? Not the weapon, but a minicomputer language based entirely on paper forms...imagine...Wink
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RJBowman
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« Reply #11 on: February 19, 2014, 03:00:29 pm »

Py yiminy, that's the very book, and same cover too! Thx!

I remember Cobol...punched cards, control cards, and model numbers with only 2 digits...Wink of course I'd never admit that in an interview...Wink RPG II? Not the weapon, but a minicomputer language based entirely on paper forms...imagine...Wink

I've worked on mainframe on green screen RS232 terminals, but that was after punched cards had pretty much been eliminated and minicomputers were gone or on the way out. The 101 course at Purdue was Fortran, which I thought was a very limiting language.

If you knew Cobol, you might have gotten some very lucrative work updating legacy code back in 1999.
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Heckler
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« Reply #12 on: February 19, 2014, 03:06:30 pm »

If you knew Cobol, you might have gotten some very lucrative work updating legacy code back in 1999.

I learned COBOL back in college in the early nineties.  It made me realise I was definitely not cut out for development.

I became a Sys Admin instead......
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neon_suntan
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« Reply #13 on: February 23, 2014, 10:33:25 pm »


I'll confess right now that I'm not a programmer and failed the first year of my Computing degree (I should really have been doing film studies but that's another story)

However I did manage to claw my way through to some work experience at Rutherford Appleton Labs in Oxfordshire. For the simple fact that I had been using VAX-VMS machines at the University and the Lab was using Digital Alpha Workstations, the last iteration of that format really. The joy of the Digital "programming" (command line interface) was that it was easy to discern what the set of commands were trying to do, whereas with C++ I was completely bewildered.

The data sorting commands I was able to use were easy and straightforward but to replicate them in Excel I'd need to get down to some serious Visual Basic subroutines

e.g. "merge these two data sets and output only the items that occur in neither" was a single command line entry.
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