Thursday, April 12, 2012

Steam Power

As a classicist, I can assure you that a great deal of interest has been directed towards the steam "engine," or aeolipile, created by Hero of Alexandria.  The creation of the device probably predates Hero, possibly to the 3rd century BCE - but this is not what interests classics or ancient history professors.  No, it is that the existence of this device, and the fact that it was never put to any practical use, is proof positive that the Romans did not view technology in the same manner as we do ourselves.  No, the Romans were NOT driven by the need to constantly reinvent their universe!  The Romans did not see labor saving devices as all important necessities!  Hero's steam engine proves that although they had the possibilities of the industrial revolution at their fingertips, the Romans eschewed technology in favor of a more traditional ideal.

What a load of hogswallop.

The above opinion was pressed on me a number of times by my professors, and was argued in a number of texts I was expected to regurgitate.  It must be remembered that classicists are as a whole reclusive rather anti-practical lumps, and as such are expected to miss the obvious problem with Hero's "engine."  That is, that it isn't an engine at all.  It's a toy.

See, what the aeolipile does not do, that which practicality demands, is that it does not process cold water into steam while it is in action.  If you add cold water to an aeolipile while it is spinning, it very definitely stops spinning.

It took another 16 centuries for James Watt to satisfactorily improve upon a number of cantankerous steam devices in the 18th century and create an ENGINE.  The steam engine, the gentle reader understands, both takes in cold water AND puts out steam, simultaneously.  Hero and his contemporaries couldn't figure out how to do that - and that is why the Romans did not embrace the Industrial Revolution.

Yet try and tell a classics professor.  Go on.  Try.

I won't jump into the function of Watt's steam engine, an improvement on the Newcomen steam engine, a leap forward from Thomas Savery's pump, etc.  I won't, because D&D isn't steam punk, and I'm not here to argue that it should be.  I would like to point out, however, that the making of steam into water has been around a lot longer than human beings have - the problem for our species has always been the interjection of a great deal of heat into a relatively small amount of water in order to create steam to exact specifications.

Well, it's a problem we have.  It's not a problem where a spellcaster is concerned.

Let us consider the spell heat metal.  This is a spell which, according to the books, causes metal to glow a dull red - so we're talking about a fair amount of heat.  Now ... what stops me from creating an iron flask about the size of a bread loaf, filling it with water, sealing it with a metal plug and dipping that into another layer of metal in order to seal it tightly?  If the water within has nowhere to go, and the metal is heated, what is the effect?

For that matter, if I cast shrink (the opposite of enlarge) upon the object, but not upon the water it contains, what is the effect of that?

What if I have clairvoyance, enabling me to see the water, so that I cast either enlarge or shrink on the water, and not on the container?  And if I create water, then shrink it, then teleport that water into the container, then dispel magic, what is the effect of that?

What is the effect if all of this is done on a container of considerable thickness which is molded into having an enlongated spout, which is plugged until the pressure is released within.  How much pressure can I produce in order to give me how much steam?

If I create whichever steam-producing metal bubble seems most effective, and apply a fire trap, so that it only opens at the spigot-end when a door is opened, how much damage can I cause?

If not a fire trap, how about a ward or an appropriate glyph of some sort?

If I enlarge my metal bubble and put it in the hands of a creature who naturally gives off a level of heat, then create a gate to the plane of water inside the bubble, how much damage will that do?

Are there any particular reasons my character cannot experiment with these things in your world?


Carl said...

Hello Alexis,

These bits at the end here about experiementation with magic to implement very modern technologies is what used to give me the most heartburn as a DM. I've commented on these kinds of things on your blog in the past, so I won't bore you or your audience by posting them again.

For the benefit of those who've not read my wild rantings, I feel that if you allow this kind of thing in your game, the first question you should ask your DM-self is, "Who in my world has already tried this?" Then give yourself a few hours to think about the implications of that. Could it be that the steam engine, by magic, has already been invented and is now in broad use in every holding with at least a 9th level magic user? What's the impact on the big cities? Kingdoms? Empires? I can tell you that D&D does not take these things into account and if you do, you'll quickly find yourself running a Steam Punk/Sci Fi game.

I think your previous posts on the medieval mindset should be sufficient to quell such wanderings into technological application of magic. Magic is not science. It's alchemy. It's cooking. A pinch of this, an utterance of that, a wave of the hand and POOF! Magic. Why does that happen? The medieval mind doesn't ask this question. That's for post-Renaissance minds. What is important is that I've just dropped a fireball on those goblins. Obviously, it was God's will that they burn to death. Amen.

I used to invoke Jung's idea of the collective unconscious and archetypes to explain why your character is not going to come up with the idea of a bicycle or steam engine in the 16th century. I knew it was a cop out then, and it's why I decided to move away from "period" gaming and into SciFi. Sci Fi has no limits on technology, or magic. I have no excuse for my later Roman Madness. I'm a romantic at heart, I suppose.

Great post today, Alexis. Thank you.

Carl said...

PS -- I "shared" your post on Google+

A friend of mine said she finds your site difficult to read due to the light text on the not-as-light background. I told her I would pass on her comments.



JDJarvis said...

If I was feeling cantankerous as to why a character couldn't create high level magic supported engineering I might say something like "So where did you get an idea like that without the book learning of our civilization?"

That would be awfully cranky and fun killing however, I'd be much happier to have such research kill the researcher or even better actually function after a huge expense in time and hard-won coin.

There is no reason rational and even ingenious individuals shouldn't change something in the world around them once they realize they have the tools to do so.

Arduin said...

My favorite series returns, and triumphantly at that.

I see Carl's point, above, and it certainly gives pause.

I can, of course, supplement his own arguments against himself: who is to say anyone else has attempted to experiment in this regard?

Or rather, who has experimented successfully. Ne'ertheless.

If we postulate magic, then by all means we could also be assuming all manner of technologies coming into existence hundreds, if not thousands of years earlier, but we do not.

The knowledge of a substance doesn't equate to the knowledge of how to implement it, and it could very well be that whatever Mages with the ability to use these spells were far too busy looking into things they saw as "more productive".

It could very well be Merlin XI was too busy trying to conjure Jann and Demons to power his objects (something I'm to understand is featured heavily in fantasy literature) and so never much thought of how useful it might be to just have hot air do would the same things.

With that in mind, I offer the idea that the PCs are the entrepeneurs in this area. Everyone else snickers behind their hands, shaking their heads at the idiot mages who want a device powered by something other than a crank and an Iron Golem.

Eric said...

Coming at this from a bottom-up perspective: all of what you suggest here is going to take a lot of time and dangerous experiment, and will produce something really heavy. Also, there will be less of an economic incentive to develop steam technology to do work as opposed to creating explosions.

Off the top of my head, a gate spell or a decanter of endless water will let you run a waterwheel anywhere, without concerns for the cost of fuel.... and the cost of fuel was a significant incentive to develop more sophisticated steam engines.

I'd also wonder what kind of lag your world would see in machining and replaceable parts without guns in it- I see firearms as a strong incentive for metallurgical and engineering research in the Middle Ages onward.

Carl said...

Nope! Your character can experiment to her heart's content (in my world). I always demand that magic function according to logical rules which of course means that those rules can be exploited by clever players and NPCs alike.

This is probably why every RPG I have ever run that included magic would have to be classified as some kind of sci-fi/fantasy hybrid. Every society/group that has had long term access to magic should have many unique technological adaptations to their environment that utilize magic.

One good reason for me never shooting down a player that wants to experiment with novel applications of magic is that I have proven to myself time and again that I can usually come up with at least as novel an application in the hands of an antagonist NPC. I love nothing more than introducing new magical "technologies" to scare the crap out of the PCs every time they run up against enemy spellcasters.

Doug Wall said...

The story I heard as to why the Hero steam engine didn't take off was that human labor was too readily available for labor-saving devices to be worth the effort to develop. Much like the wheel never took off in the Andes because it wasn't a useful technology in such mountainous terrain.

Alexis said...

Sure Doug, I heard that too. But if you think about it, human labor was even MORE available in the 18th century; people were better fed, wages were controlled by governments and the peasantry in general were less free and less well off than during the Greek period. The population of England 1750 was vastly greater than the population of Greece and Rome. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution increased the demand for human labor.

Fact is, air pressure and the principles of heat had to be understood generally before the steam engine could be developed. The Romans developed many labor saving devices - they just didn't have the science necessary to improve on this one.

I love people who argue that technology is a "choice" - like an ordinary person inventing something gives a damn about the social availability of labor.

Incidentally, the wheel never took off in the Andes because the Americas had no practical indiginous draft animal. The Spaniards did not abandon the wheel when they began operating in those same mountains, and if the Incas had had mules, they'd have built ROADS, just like other high mountain peoples did. The Andes have plateaus and valleys too, you know. If they abandoned the wheel because of the terrain, what's wrong with the great plain around Titicaca?

Alexis said...

Historians are all too often ignorant of engineering, geography and human stubbornness. Thus arises the sort of hubris that Doug is repeating.


I think you'd find that a decanter of endless water doesn't expel enough mass of water to turn a waterwheel large enough to be industrial. The gate spell probably.

In fact, in general I don't think any of the proposals I made have any real industrial practicality. I think they might make interesting weapons, one offs that could waste a party member or an enemy. And I agree with the others that these are dangerous things with which to experiment.

My purpose in writing about steam in this way was to get people thinking about the magical/energy application mix that a player could develop - if so inclined.

Anthony said...

"Are there any particular reasons my character cannot experiment with these things in your world?"

Nothing at all. Unless PV/nrT > HP ;)

Anthony said...

Actually, I'd like to change my response. There are definitive and easy-to-find answers for all of the
OP's questions. However, I am not going to keep my copy of Perry's and Welty, Wicks, Wilson, and Rorrer at the game table. So for anyone who wants to experiment, I wouldn't allow it at the game table, rather, I would point them to my bookshelf and tell them to crunch the numbers themselves.

Or I can charge my standard hourly rate to do it myself. But I don't think that will win me any friends either...