True Stuff: The Steam Trombone

Marksman Gabriel F. writes, “I was just doing some research for a musicology/history paper I’m working on when I stumbled across this (hilarious) article that you might enjoy reading, from an 1890 edition of the New York Times.”

…The very notion of a steam trombone makes humanity shudder. In its best estate the trombone, when inflated merely by the unaided power of the human lung and its note deepened merely by the extent of the human arm, is a somewhat lethal utensil. In the hands of an artist and in combination with other instruments it may be borne and even borne gladly, but unmitigted and alone even the normal trombone is a thing of dread.

[…] Whosoever has inhabited an apartment near to that in which a practitioner upon the trombone has struggled with the difficulties of that instrument will agree that nailing the student to the wall with a javelin is about the mildest form of expostulation that is appropriate to the offense.

But a steam trombone, a trombone of two hundred horse power, even as a freak of the imagination, shows a terrible malignity, and the embodiment of such cynicism in actual brass, and the pouring through it of volumes of sonorous steam, show what the statute defining murder describes as a depraved mind regardless of human life.

[…] What manner of diabolical mechanism actuates the steam trombone does not clearly appear, but there is a ghastly possibility that the slide works in and out with a regular and infallible stroke like a piston rod, and that the full depth of the iniquity of the machine must be sounded at each recurring oscillation. The arrangement of music for an instrument of such requirements is calculated to unsettle the human intellect, while the performance must make the reason of the hearer to totter on its throne… It is almost a proof of poverty of spirit that the owner of the awful engine is still alive and at large, and that his victims have gone about to abate his trombone by the mild process of injunction, instead of a more appropriate and effective form of a public riot, which should not have left a foot of brass in the tubing of the instrument, nor one limb upon another of its cruel and unusual proprietor.

This is an amazing thing for the New York Times to publish.

As close as I can gather, the facts of the matter are: Someone in Scranton built a steam-powered trombone. The people of Scranton then complained to the court, or the police, or someone with injunctive powers, who put an end to the steam-trombonery.

And that is all we get.

Delightful! I don’t even want to know more. Gabriel has discovered what I have long known: just browsing around these old archives, whether the New York Times or Google Books or Cornell University’s Making of America or the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Children’s Literature is absolutely, 100% guaranteed fascinating. That’s why I do my True Stuff from Old Books series, and one of these days I’ll figure out how to post stuff every dang day, I’ve found so much interesting material.

At SteamCon a few weeks ago, I was privileged to be on a few panels. One was called “Researching the Victorian Era,” and I was matched with novelists Gail Carriger (who’s got even more links of this type here) and Michelle Black. These, I learned, were folks who researched — digging up old civic records in community centers to see who lived and died in a certain town at a certain time, and looking at a grocery list in a photo to see what the people of the era might have eaten. This notion of “fact-finding research” is fascinating to me because, of course, I do nothing of the sort. How quaint, striving for accuracy! I have no need of this strange concept.

I was also on another panel, in which I presented a collection of my “True Stuff from Old Books” findings. My presentation touched on two main ideas, which were: (1) old-timey stuff is funny to us modern folks and (2) them funny old-timey people were fundamentally no different from us. At all. Really, at all. Human beings are human beings, and just as we feel overwhelmed by email, they felt exactly as overwhelmed by the telegraph. It’s incredible, reading their words — in fact, I’ve even put up the slide deck I used if anyone is interested in flipping through it. I’ll probably rework it somewhat before I give the talk again, but I think it’s interesting reading as it stands.

I will be honest with you: it was the first time I’d given that talk, and I didn’t know quite how it would go. I was tremendously pleased to see the room absolutely packed — it gave the whole event an energy that I like to feel like I played off of fairly decently. I ended up very, very happy with how the presentation went, and only regret that I hadn’t the presence of mind to record it. I don’t suppose anyone who was in attendance made a recording? I’d love to share it, if so. Email me!

And I’d love to perform the talk again! I will be attending a few steampunk-specific shows next year, but I will make this offer to all of you reading: I want to give this talk again. I would like to share some tremendously fascinating things I’ve found in old books with your community, or student body, or inmate population. I am currently putting together my 2011 convention tour schedule and if I can work in more public speaking — either at a convention, or piggybacking on an existing trip, or even making a new trip if the situation warrants — I would love to explore the possibilities!

In the meantime I’ll continue posting new and interesting things I discover here on the ol’ blog! Everyone act surprised when I give a talk and you’ve already read all the stuff before from having seen it on the site!

  • The Shorpy Historical Photo Archive should intrigue as well then –

  • Allen K.

    Looking through your talk, I thought “The stuff from that bad boy’s book can’t be real!”

    But yes!

  • Dan B.

    Fun fact: this article is approximately 260,963 times funnier when read in the voice of Al Swearingen.

  • This reminded me immediately, for reasons that will not be obvious from the title alone, of one of my favorite pieces by Mark Twain: “A Touching Story of George Washington’s Boyhood”.
    The only place I could find it online was
    Please forgive the horrible layout and pictures and try to imagine the text as I read it growing up, in an old, yellowing, and appropriately typeset book of Twain’s writing.

  • The link to your slide deck didn’t work for me…little help, perhaps?

  • Go to the NYT archive page and search for “steam trombone” and you’ll be rewarded with three articles. One is the original news story to which your post is a reaction. The third is a follow up on the resulting court case.