Continuing Lecturer, University Writing Program, UC Davis

The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) Spotlight

About the Novel

In 1868, when Beadle and Adams first published Edward S. Ellis’s The Steam Man of the Prairies, the book’s approach to traditional frontier adventure was unique. Only a few US-based writers (Edgar Allan Poe, Fitz-James O’Brien, and others) had written short stories, or “sketches,” that used modern technology’s influence on individuals for their plot. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was 50 years old, but Jules Verne was just starting his career and still untranslated into English. In this context, scholars such as Bill Brown and Everett Bleiler have recognized Ellis’s book as the earliest American novel-length piece of science fiction. At just under 30,000 words, it’s technically a novella, but it was printed as a standalone, multi-chaptered story with a plot that relies completely on the invention of a machine that transforms several people’s lives, some for good, some for ill. The Steam Man of the Prairies deserves its “first U.S. science fiction novel” label.

Hand-colored illustration of the Steam Man and Johnny Brainerd on the cover of Beadle's New Dime Novels no. 270/591

Like many prolific dime novelists who had to write multiple tales in a short span of time, Edward S. Ellis looked to newspaper articles for story ideas. The Steam Man of the Prairies was initially inspired by a New Jersey newspaper report that inventor Zadoc P. Dederick had created a steam-powered machine shaped like a seven-foot-tall human (Bleiler From the Steam Man 101-102.) While Dederick’s invention may not have actually worked and certainly didn’t make any tangible, long-term changes in transportation culture, Ellis took the concept and ran with it. The Steam Man of the Prairies tells the story of a young genius who overcomes physical disability and makes his fortune on the American frontier by inventing an enormous, anthropomorphic machine. Johnny Brainerd participates in violent adventures despite being “deformed’ or “hunchbacked” because his steam man provides him speed (up to 60 mph, we’re told) and imposing prowess (his appearance shocks natives and frontiersmen alike). It begins in media res, with the shocking appearance of the Steam Man to Ethan Hopkins and Mickey McSquizzle on the prairie, before going back to tell us Johnny’s origins—his mother’s encouragement, his determined work constructing the steam man, and his meeting Baldy Bicknell. It then becomes a mostly episodic affair, with unrelated action including a buffalo hunt, encounter with a grizzly bear, and the near-theft of Brainerd’s machine. It culminates with a final encounter with the Indians as the successful miners attempt to return to civilization. The Indians’ presence is, of course, felt throughout the book—both in overt encounters and in repeated assertions by white settlers that they are a constant threat. For characterization, the book relies on stereotypes. While some, like Ethan Hopkins’ “Yankee” hard-headedness, are fairly benign, the portrayal of indigenous people is simplistic and demeaning. Even in the time period when it was written, the book’s portrayal of Native Americans would have offended many readers across many backgrounds, although contemporary protests against dime novels were usually more about their portrayal of violence in youth-oriented stories rather than who that narrative violence was directed towards (Pfitzer 44-45). In grafting the concept of Dederick’s invention to a somewhat clichéd Western tale, Ellis’s novel evokes a cornucopia of American themes: expansion, travel, technophilia, violence, and “rags-to-riches” capital aquisition.

Photograph of the Steam Man, a steam-powered vehicle invented by American inventors Zadoc P. Dederick and Isaac Grass.

The Steam Man of the Prairies was first released as number 45 in Beadle's American Novel series. Like many popular dime novels, it was reprinted multiple times—at least seven publications between 1868 and 1904, with three different titles. In 1876, Beadle's Half Dime Library 271 called it The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies, a title that stuck for a few printings; Pocket Library’s 1888 reprint was titled Baldy’s Boy Partner. Beadle's retitling of the novel as The Huge Hunter in 1876 is puzzling, given that the Huge Hunter is the name given to a character—a villain—who appears in only a single chapter. The decision is likely more indicative of the dime novel publishing strategy of making old material seem new rather than an actual comment on the story's content.

The 1876 reprinting (the one titled The Huge Hunter and accessible here) is important for two reasons. First, it reached readers during the American centennial celebration, when many U.S. citizens wanted optimistic entertainment and their memories of the Civil War’s horror were receding. The year’s events included the Chicago World’s Fair, a showcase for U.S. ingenuity on an international stage (Evans 556). Second, its influence on publishing was enormous. As E.F. Bleiler has charted, the 1876 reprint led Beadle and Adams’s competitor, Frank Tousey, to publish an imitation featuring an inventor named Frank Reade that then became a series. Tousey’s tales of inventor Frank Reade, Jr. led to a weekly series, The Frank Reade Library, resulting in over 180 stories. The concept of a youthful inventor, first suggested by Ellis’s Johnny Brainerd, became so common that three dime novel series (Tousey’s Frank Reade, Jr. and Jack Wright, and Street and Smith publishing’s Tom Edison Jr.) ran simultaneously during the 1890s. Their success inspired the later hardbound-novel series of boy inventor Tom Swift, begun in 1910 and featuring 40 original novels, which were still popular with juvenile readers in the mid-twentieth-century and continue to be periodically rebooted  like other literary franchises (Bleiler “From the Steam Man” 112). For a book filled with flatly drawn caricatures, The Steam Man of the Prairies’ true legacy is likely its promotion of a then-new, now-famous character type: the “boy genius.”

About the Author

Edward Sylvester Ellis was born in 1840 and began writing professionally at age 19, while he was working as a schoolteacher in New Jersey (Pearson 34). When Ellis wrote The Steam Man of the Prairies, he was already a successful writer in the dime novel realm.


Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916)

Unlike many subsequent dime novelists who achieved fame under pseudonyms, Ellis's most famous works are attributed to his own name (although he used a number of other pen names over his career). His first novel was Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, sold to Beadle for $75 (over $2,100 in twenty-first century dollars according to the Library of Congress’s inflation calculator link). The heavily promoted novel sold more than 500,000 copies and established Ellis’s career, leading to a contract with Beadle to write four novels a year and resulting in over 90 total original works (Brown Reading 163). Later in his life, Beadle paid him $250 for each 40,000-word novel (Pearson 46). From this perspective, The Steam Man of the Prairies is a relatively small part of a much longer career. See the spotlight for Seth Jones for more about Ellis.

Discussion Questions

  • How does the novel portray progress and the invention of technology? What does it assume “progress” means, and how is technology part of it? Who is able to participate in that progress and who cannot?
  • How is Johnny Brainerd’s disabled body portrayed in the text? How does the Steam Man change the way Johnny Brainerd relates to his body and the world? What alternatives does the book suggest for individuals whose physical limitations might prevent them from participating in American idealizations of physical, social, and financial mobility?
  • What parts of the story seem like clichéd elements of "Wild West" stories that most people know and expect? Does the injection of an imaginary piece of technology (The Steam Man) change or subvert those elements? Why or why not? How?
  • Do the Native Americans in this text do anything other than serve as barely-drawn villains? What would a reading that foregrounded indigenous viewpoints bring to our understanding of Ellis’s novel? What might the story be like if told from those characters’ point-of-view?
  • What should we make of the character called the “Huge Hunter” who appears in Chapter 14? What does his short appearance bring to the text? Does it teach us anything we didn’t already know about Johnny or his Steam Man? Do you think the 1876 retitling of the book refers to this character or to someone or something else? Why?
  • How does Johnny’s choice to use the Steam Man as an exploding weapon in the book’s climax affect the story’s “rags to riches” plot? Is the destruction of the Steam Man an enormous sacrifice for the young inventor? Why?

Further Reading

Charts the history of the story from its initial inspiration by news accounts of Dederick’s steam man through its long-term, tertiary influence on science-fiction authors and publishers.

Examines Ellis’s novel in the broader context of American empire, particularly its emphasis on prosthetically enhancing bodies to facilite expansion. Contrasts the novel with other works that normalize the concept of technology enhancing humans, discussing the broader cultural influence that this line of thinking had on American endeavors abroad, such as the Panama Canal.

Analyzes the portrayal of race in the novel, particularly in places where the Steam Man seems to fill roles that were done by African-American slaves before the Civil War. Includes fascinating analysis of Dederick’s original plans, which drew the Steam Man as a Black caricature, to assess the lingering racism in the American machine culture that the novel champions.

Suggests that the novel influenced Mark Twain’s portrayal of “technology run amuck” in his famous time-travel novel (52). Addresses several moments in Ellis’s book where technology fails or is problematic in ways that Twain may have recognized and imitated.

Contrasts Ellis’s work to earlier sketches by Poe and Irving that address the genocidal impulses of American settlers and the brutality of Indian removal policies more explicitly than Ellis’s novel.

For excellent general works that contextualize The Steam Man of the Prairies within the development of science fiction, see The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link (2020), Science Fiction: The Early Years, by Everett F. Bleiler (1990), and Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars by Brooks Landon (1997).

Works Cited