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Science and Imagination: Full Steam(punk) Ahead with Primary Sources

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Collecting cards with pictures of events in ballooning history from 1795 to 1846
Collecting cards with pictures of events in ballooning history from 1795 to 1846

Lately we’ve been oohing and aahing over the new Library of Congress online exhibition Finding Our Place in the Cosmos and sharing new science-related teaching resources with you.  Happily, thinking about other worlds isn’t just for science class! As seen in a recent blog post on 300 years of imaginary spaceships, not only scientists but writers and artists have been imagining fantastic possibilities for centuries.

Today, many authors, artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers are exploring something called “steampunk.” Though definitions of steampunk may vary, the genre was inspired by the inventiveness of the Victorian era: think balloons, steam ships, locomotives, and diving bells.  Many modern steampunk writers and artists find beauty in the immense power and possibilities of 1800s technology (see this Eiffel Tower photo for an example of “immense”) and they often combine it with romantic Victorian ideas and imagery from the times.

Examining creative works from the past can inspire student imagination and creativity today.  Explore the Library of Congress collections to see detailed original Victorian-era drawings, plans and photos. Here are some ideas for your K-12 classroom:

  • Display “Le Sortie de l’opera” (below) or “Maison tournante aérienne” and discuss what it tells us about life in the 1800s. Later, collaborate with your art or tech teacher and ask students to design their own fantasy vehicle or home, including real or imagined technology that provides basic needs like shelter, air, water, food. Students can draw, paint, or use 2D or 3D software or printers.
    Le Sortie de l'opéra. Air travel over Paris in 2000, as imagined in the late 1800s [detail]
    Le Sortie de l’opéra. Air travel over Paris in 2000, as imagined in the late 1800s [detail]

    Cures d'air dans la montagne, 1883?
    Cures d’air dans la montagne, 1883?
  • Examine the details in “Cures d’air” (left). Speculate about how it works. What structure today is most similar to “Cure D’Air”?
  • Explore more amazing examples of creativity in the Library’s Tissandier Collection, which documents the early history of aeronautics with an emphasis on balloon flight.
  • Carl Sagan said, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” Cosmos (1980)  Think about how scientists develop new ideas.  What role does imagination play in science, and vice versa?

To draw your students deeper into analyzing the primary sources, ask them to record observations, reflections and questions on the Library’s primary source analysis tool. Find tips in the Blog Round-Up: Using the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

How could you incorporate some of these primary sources in your classroom?

Comments (2)

  1. This is very useful for a Science and Math presentation that will happen tomorrow on February 7th. It leads to other relevant examples of primary sources that envisioned the future. In addition, my oldest granddaughter is an admirer of “steampunk” fashions and artifacts. This is a wonderful opportunity to provide a detailed view of the Victorian beliefs while investigating and thinking deeper into a plethora of possible meanings.

  2. I love all the detailed work that they do in each of the pictures. The steampunk concept of the future is still mind boggling to this day and is definitely represented in what we see in steampunk fashion at raves and other events. A site that i have really enjoyed in the past is, but I believe it might be down at the moment.

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