Steam-Powered Brewing and Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, or, Research vs. That Other Thing

I mentioned a while back that I’m listening to an audiobook of The Difference Engine. Well, I’m pretty close to the end now, and enjoying the hell out of it. One phrase that comes to mind is how Edward Said described the novel as a form (in the process of explaining why understanding novels were useful to understanding imperialism), in Culture and Imperialism:

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from Edward Said’s Culture And Imperialism, page 71. Click the image to see the source on Google Books.

Note the highlight: “an incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form.” That is not only something I aspire to in my own fiction writing, but it most definitely is true of The Difference Engine, except it’s sort of a weirdcyclopedia, like a bunch of shreds from history books dipped in teratogenic goo and then left out in the sun to mutate and fuse together. To what end? Sterling and Gibson’s project isn’t so far off from what Said describes, except of course it’s not the energy of the bourgeoisie, or the attainment of stability by bourgeois heroes and heroines, that is central to the book. Rather, it’s industrial revolution–technology-driven change–that is the central energy, the central character which attains stability by the end.

240px-TheDifferenceEngine(1stEd)As I make my way through Sterling and Gibson’s novel, I’m blown away by the amount of research they seem to have done: whole books I’ve read float by, crammed into a couple of throwaway lines of dialog, such as the reference to the cholera outbreak in 1854 and the (ultimately, foolish) mockery of the idea it was propagated by contaminated water. The idea of Florence Nightingale joining an anarchist (well, really, Communist, but they keep saying anarchist) revolution in 1850s London–and lecturing on the use of newfangled contraception, as well as the dangers of smoking!–is just too perfect. 

(I also love the way that a couple of the characters seem to be aware that they’re in an alternate history. Especially charming is how one of the anarchist revolutionaries, Marquess, arrives at the right conclusion following a seemingly-insane path: in discussing the study of history, he remarks that “…it has come to me that some dire violence has been done to the true and natural course of historical development.”)

But there was a moment–just a tiny moment seemingly included for color–that struck me as them having gotten it all wrong. It’s just a tiny glitch in a gorgeous fractal structure, and it may not even be a glitch–it may be a distortion in my vision, indeed–but it stuck out to me immediately.

This is the moment:

Four dead and bloating horses, a team of massive Percherons, lay swollen in Stepney. The stiffened carcasses, shot to death, were still in their harness. A few yards on, the dray itself appeared, sacked, its wheels missing. Its dozen great beer-casks had been rolled down the street, then battered open, each site of rapturous looting now surrounded by a pungent, fly-blown stickiness of spillage. There were no revelers left now, their only evidence being shattered pitchers, dirty rags of women’s clothing, single shoes.

Wait, what? Horse-pulled dray-carts delivering beer? In an 1855 London where Babbage engines of some sort are ubiquitous, and where steam-powered racing-“zephyr” carriages exist (albeit at high cost)?


This kind of doesn’t make sense. Not within the radical-technophilic alt-history aesthetic of The Difference Engine, and not if you know about brewers and their relationship with technology, steam-powered and otherwise. Or so it seemed to me at the moment.

After all, in The Brewing Industry in England: 1700-1830, Peter Mathias tells us that brewers were among the first people to replace horses with steam engines, and for good reason: horses were used for all kinds of work within breweries, but they were expensive and troublesome. They required food, stabling, men to handle and care for them, and constant replacing since they died from constant toil and overwork. And horses were cheaper then, but they weren’t exactly cheap.

Mathias makes a point of emphasizing how seriously the brewers of London took the idea of using engines in their work, as well as how early they adopted them. Until 1782, B0ulton and Watt made only pumping engines, which didn’t interest brewers since they needed horses on hand for milling grain anyway. But in 1781, Boulton urged Watt to register patents for engines that effected rotative motion–engines, in other words, that could be used for milling. In 1784 (after two such engines were demonstrated at an ironworks (where it operated a tilt hammer) and at Soho (this second engine ended up at the Albion Flour Mills) Watt and Boulton started taking commercial orders for mills… and the first two orders made in London were from breweries. Here’s a list of breweries that adopted steam engines, right from the Mathias book:

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Source: The Brewing Industry in England: 1700-1830 by Peter Mathias. Click for image source at Google Books. Apologies for the poor left edge, it’s present in the Google scan as well.

You can see Boulton and Watt were flooded by requests for engines; Mathias indeed includes excerpts from Whitbread’s very excited letter, where he inquires not only whether there’s still an engine up and running for someone to come see, but also as to the horsepower available, the cost of installation, licensing, operation, and maintenance, all in comparison to the expense of maintaining a team of mill horses.  Whitbread very excitedly bought an engine for his brewery.

And indeed, the oldest surviving steam engine today was one of the first, and it was the one built by Boulton & Watt for the Whitbread Brewery. Now, I’m talking about real world history, so get this: Whitbread Brewery was internally powered by steam starting in 1784. Many of the major industrial-scale breweries seem to have made the change by around 1800 (a full fifty years before the time in which The Difference Engine is set). Brewers were early adopters for a few reasons–prestige, efficiency, an internalized sense that technical innovations (like those achieved in malting, or the development of thermometers and saccharometers) were good for the industry–but mostly because it just made good economic sense.

The other notable thing about brewery engines–which were used both to power pumps, and to mill grain–is that they ran very, very slowly. This is why the oldest surviving steam engine today was one of the first: grain milling doesn’t require rapid spinning (and optimally does not involve too-rapid spinning, as speed translates to heat which is bad for the malt in several ways); nor, necessarily, does pumping wort into a vat (or pumping beer out of one), a secondary function to which some of the rotative engines were applied for secondary purposes. That meant that the steam engines used by breweries tended to require relatively little repair, because wear-and-tear were minimized through very slow operation. For example, that Boulton & Watt steam engine at Whitbread?

The engine remained in service for 102 years, until 1887.

Now, consider what Mathias has to say about draymen and the horses that pulled drays:

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Mathias, page 78. Click to see image source on Google Books.

Here, the slowness is the relevant point for me, and for my puzzlement at The Difference Engine, too. In our real history, drays went about the city so slowly, delivering the beer, that people actually complained about their blocking traffic, and had been doing so since at least the 1600s! Besides, there was no difference in the cost of maintaining a dray-horse and a milling-horse, so if brewers were eager to replace the latter, one expects they would also want to replace the former, as soon as it was demonstrated to be feasible. 

Given the existence of zephyrs (basically, steam-powered racing carriages) in the world of The Difference Engine, I would imagine that all the major breweries would, years before, have replaced their teams of horses with steam-powered dray-carts, probably finding some way of having the engine on board serve double duty by facilitating the unloading of barrels of porter while they were at it. After all, the draymen and the publicans were all accustomed to slow delivery speeds, and would have appreciated the unloading function, and a slow-running dray-carriage might indeed have enjoyed as long a lifespan as any brewery engine. The savings would have been enormous, plus it’d make the actual offloading of the goods easier, given a sufficiently well-designed vehicle.

I can only see four circumstances where breweries might not have adopted steam-powered dray-carts:

  1. Laws forbade the use of steam-powered carriages within the city. (Which doesn’t seem to be the case, since zephyrs seem quite fashionable.)
  2. Steam-powered carriages blow a gasket with great regularity. Maybe there was some colossal accident where a steam-dray blew a gasket and it heated some beer-casks, which (suddenly under higher pressure than usual) exploded, spraying hot beer all over everyone in the vicinity? Heck, if the carriages were simply a certain degree more unreliable than horses (some percentage increase in unreliability) the losses might translate to an economic advantage in keeping the system horse-powered.
  3. The draymen of London formed a guild and the breweries simply found it cheaper to outsource the delivery work to them, and leave the means of delivery up to the guild. (Could have happened, though it’s not mentioned.)
  4. Enduring for nostalgia for the dray horse delivery system, as some sort of anti-Rad gesture–which seems unlikely since brewers were so pro-industrialization, but who knows, maybe they ended up being in the après-garde by the 1855 of the novel.

It’s possible, given how proud the draymen were of their horses–and the iconic status that they held in London at the time–that their guild might irrationally maintain the use of horses despite technological alternatives existing, though they’d also have to compete with an emerging carriage-delivery business. Such carriages do not yet seem to be common in the London of The Difference Engine, so maybe they just haven’t edged the draymen out of business yet. Still, all that seems unlikely to me next to the idea of breweries just early-adopting steam-powered delivery carts, the way they did steam-powered milling engines in the 1780s and 1790s.

(That’s not even to get into other questions, like why breweries would have persisted in using massive casks instead of moving toward miniaturization, if not quite the wholesale adoption of smaller kegs like we have today, or steam-powered bottling lines. It’s enough to make me really think hard about what kind of story could be told in a steampunk brewery, because those kinds of technologies–weird alternate routes into the industrialization of brewing–are fascinating in and of themselves.)

I could go on and on about it; asking why a beverage industry hadn’t developed so that Mallory could get his longed-for “hucklebuff” from a bottle (and find it disappointing in pre-mixed form; I mean, they have premixed cocktails in Australia, don’t they?).

I could, except here’s the thing:

I didn’t really care that much that Gibson and Sterling’s speculation felt “off,” in this tiny little way. I thought the scene with the destroyed dray-cart, its casks smashed open by looters who wanted to get hammered, worked really well. I thought the mindless slaughter of the horses made a point very well as far as illustrating the horror, chaos, and waste of the rampage going on in that imaginary London, and also the nastiness of it… as well as the ironic destruction of what, here, represents the past… even if, in reality, the dray-horses and massive beer casks represented the industrialized future, just, a future that brewers reached before most other industries. Ignore that one little nagging fact, and you’ll see that the moment works for all kinds of other reasons, even if, when I sit down and think about it, it contradicts the logic of the story.

There’s a lesson in that for me, for I am someone who–if I’m writing something set in a historical setting, even an alternate history–obsesses about getting the details “right.” There’s a lot to be said for the fruits of extensive research–but writing is the thing, and if you do the writing well enough, people will forgive you the small flubs in research. Also, every text gets something wrong… but if it gets it wrong in the right way, it can still be kinda wonderful. At some point, the story matters more than the detail.

The forest is more important than the trees, even when it’s made up of trees all the way through. It’s helpful to be reminded of that with such a positive example. You’re not painting a bunch of trees, you’re painting a forest, and it’s okay to aim for the convincing impression of a forest instead of trying to paint a million perfect trees, even the trees that are deep in the background and won’t get seen. Just… make sure the trees most visible are detailed enough. (Which, in the Difference Engine, are a lot of historical figures and events and countless stylistic details that Gibson and Sterling do get “right.”)

Oh, and also? As one example, the brewery Young’s continued deliveries to local pubs using dray horses until it was made untenable by road rage and bad drivers in 1997. So, maybe Sterling and Gibson didn’t get it so wrong after all.

So anyway: sometimes research is really important. But there’s that other thing… the story that lives beyond the tiny details. That matters too… indeed, in some ways that matters more than getting details right.

How do you know whether you’re getting enough details “right”? You could say it’s a question of feel, that it’s an art. Or you could think of the Law of Diminishing Returns. If I’m the only person in 23 years to notice that maybe there’s something funny about this tiny little tangential moment in the book, and even I didn’t mind much–and my objection may be silly in itself, given Young’s continued use of dray horses for nostalgic reasons–then it wasn’t worth the trouble for Gibson and Sterling to bring themselves up to speed on the history of the industrialization of brewing in England in the 18th century. Never mind that brewers probably would have been among the Rads, and were kind of the Early Adopters in our history… so few readers will notice, and even fewer will care, given how amazing the research is overall and given the power of the moment within the story.

In other words, and, I suppose, to state the obvious: there’s a moment where historical research and a desire to “get it right” turns from being facilitative to being inhibitive; at some point, “getting it close enough” needs to become good enough, or you’ll get sucked into the fractal-labyrinthine madness of researching forever and never writing the damned thing.

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