The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis was the “first US science fiction dime novel” despite the fact that it’s short of today’s novel's length by ten thousand words. The cover states “The American Novel” at the top and the title and author at the bottom of the cover. It was one hundred fifty years old in 2015, having been published in 1865.
The story is about a primitive steam-powered ten foot tall android. It tells a tale of a teenaged genius boy, dwarfed and hunchbacked, named Johnny Brainerd; a large, wealthy trapper named Baldy Bicknell; an Irishman named Micky McSquizzle; and a Connecticut Yankee named Ethan Hopkins.
It’s an entertaining little book, with those mostly curiously named characters. Micky McSquizzle is an Irishman, and “Mick” used to be a derogatory word for those of that nationality. You have to remember that a century and a half ago, racism was far worse than any time in the next century or beyond. Everybody hated everybody back then. The Irish, Chinese, in fact all foreigners and those who looked or sounded foreign. Indigenous Americans (there are no native Americans, the original inhabitants of the Americas came here ten thousand years ago on the Siberia-Alaska land bridge) were hated more than any other race or nationality. Despite the racism of the time, the characters get along well, except when at one point the Yankee and the Irishman nearly come to blows over a trifling matter. Much of the story concerns battles with “red-skins”, who history says were treated horribly by the European immigrants.
Johnny Brainerd is an interesting name, a genius named “brain nerd”; odd, since the word “nerd” was coined in 1954 by Dr. Suess in a children's book titled If I Ran the Zoo. It wasn’t used as a disparaging term for smart people until the 1960s, a hundred years after the book was written. Did someone read this book and decide to call smart kids who love reading and tinkering “nerds”? I don’t know. Nor do I have any idea how “geek” also became an unbecoming word for smart people; it originally meant someone who eats live animals. Perhaps it was college kids in the 1920s who swallowed live goldfish?
The story starts with the Yankee and the Irishman seeing the giant robot pulling a wagon across the prairie, and shortly after flashes back to its construction and the original meeting of the four protagonists, all of whom are heading west to dig gold that Baldy (who got his name after being scalped) had found earlier, meeting the other two men on a steamboat that had its boiler explode. Along the way, Brainerd is threatened by buffalo, a grizzly bear, and another trapper who wants Johnny’s “steam man” for himself.
As I said, it's an entertaining book, even if the author got a lot of science and engineering wrong (a flywheel would have enabled it to go up and down inclines, for example). I believe it’s the oldest robot story I’ve ever read. Some claim it's the first robot story, but there were magical robots in fiction since at least ancient Greece.
The book; or at least the version at gutenberg.org, has some strange writing conventions I have never seen before. There are no closing quotes, and quotes are all single quotes. There are also several obvious OCR errors, such as “he was hit bard”. “Bard” simply doesn’t fit the sentence, but “hard” does, and that’s a common OCR error. I edited all that out and correcting the quotes, and it’s posted at my book site now.
I was quite surprised to discover that three years after the book was published, American inventor Zadoc P. Dederick actually built and patented a real one!