Steam Man of the Prairies

Edisonade is a modern term, coined in 1993 by John Clute in his and Peter Nicholls’ ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,’ for fictional stories about a brilliant young inventor and his inventions. This subgenre started in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and had its apex of popularity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was common in ‘scientific romance,’ an archaic term for the genre of fiction now known as ‘science fiction.’

The term ‘Edisonade’ originated in the 1850s to describe both fiction and elements of scientific writing, but has since come to refer to the science fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, primarily that of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. In recent years, the term has come to be applied to science fiction written in a deliberately anachronistic style, as a homage to or pastiche of the original scientific romances.

The term is an eponym, named after famous inventor Thomas Edison, formed in the same way the term ‘Robinsonade’ (‘desert island story’) was formed from ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Usually first published in cheaply printed dime novels, most such stories were written to appeal to young boys. The Edisonade formula was an outgrowth of the fascination with engineering and technology that arose near the end of the 1800s. Clute defined the word as ‘any story which features a young US male inventor hero who uses his ingenuity to extricate himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from foreign oppressors.’ Later, in 1933, he added that ‘tight spots’ might include evil scientists or alien invaders, and that the hero often got the girl and rich in the process. One frequent theme in Edisonades was the exploration of little-known, ‘untamed’ parts of the world. To that degree, the stories reflected the contemporaneous era of large-scale colonization and exploration.

The earliest example of the genre as expressed in young-adult fiction is considered to be ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward S. Ellis (1868), featuring fictional inventor Johnny Brainerd. The ‘Frank Reade’ series first appeared in 1876, written by Harold Cohen (1854–1927). A series of stories featuring ‘Tom Edison, Jr.’ by Philip Reade were published between 1891 and 1892. Interestingly, the story ‘Tom Edison’s Electric Mule, or, The Snorting Wonder of the Plains’ (1892) is a parody of the earlier Frank Reade series. The ‘Jack Wright’ series was created and written by Luis Senarens. The character first appeared in 1891, and was the subject of 121 stories. Thomas Edison himself was the main character in ‘Edison’s Conquest of Mars’ by Garrett P. Serviss (1898), a sequel to ‘Fighters from Mars’ (in the form of a revenge fantasy) an unauthorized and altered adaptation of Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds.’ Another real and famous inventor to appear in one of the stories was Nikola Tesla in ‘To Mars With Tesla; or, the Mystery of the Hidden World.’

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