Robots today are becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, whether it is the drones being used for warfare in the Middle East or the delivery drones planned by Amazon. Some are even concerned that the rise in automation may pose a risk to people’s jobs, although what most people do not realize is that robots have been around for much longer than is normally expected. Perhaps the most famous example of a robot that had been designed before the advent of electricity is the Steam Man, a robot designed by Zadoc P. Dederick.
Zadoc Dederick is not a particularly well-known inventor today, and was merely a mechanic from Newark, New Jersey. However, on March 24th, 1868, Dederick and another inventor named Isaac Grass received a patent for a robot that was designed to be able to pull carriages, similar to the way an individual would pull a rickshaw. First unveiling it in New Jersey on January 23rd, 1868 (according to an issue of The Newark Observer), the robot came to be known as the “Newark Steam Man” and caused something of a sensation when it was unveiled. The robot stood roughly seven feet tall, and weighed five hundred pounds. To power the Steam Man, a boiler was located within its body which was able to produce enough steam power to enable the robot to pull cargo with the same efficiency as three horses.
In terms of speed, each step the Steam Man took advanced it two steps forward which allowed it to achieve a maximum speed of a mile per minute, although this was considered unsafe on both cobblestone streets and uneven terrain, so it was advised that the Steam Man be only operated at up to half a mile per minute. Despite being such an early precursor to modern robots, the legs of the Steam Man reportedly were capable of stepping and running “naturally and quite easily,” and were described of as “complicated and wonderful.” In order to help the Steam Man gain traction, spikes or corks were affixed to the bottoms of its feet. However, it was advised not driving the Steam Man over surfaces with more than nine inches of height difference.
As can be imagined, the sight of such a robot would have been quite unusual, and it was feared that the Steam Man might possibly scare other horses. In order to counter this, Dederick fitted the Steam Man with clothing that was considered the latest fashion during the time period, including a top hat (which doubled as a smoke stack), a coat, vest, woolen garments, shoes, and a knapsack which would cover the steam gauges which protruded from the robot’s back. The Steam Man also possessed a “face” with white skin, a dark mustache and hair, and a smile in order to give it a more human appearance.Reportedly the robot only needed coaling (or resupplying the boiler with coal) every two to three hours, which could be done by unbuttoning the vest and opening the Steam Man’s boiler, then shoveling in the coal.
At the time, a Steam Man (which was known as “Daniel Lambert” by the inventors and workmen) cost $2,000, which roughly translates to $25,000 in 2003 dollars, indicating the extremely high cost for just one robot. Despite the expensive price tag, Dederick even had plans to develop steam-powered horses, who were intended to do the same work as twelve horses. Regrettably, Dederick’s Steam Man was too expensive to produce and it never caught on, and Dederick never even designed his planned mechanical horses. There was however an inventor named L.A. Rygg who published a patent in 1893 for a mechanical horse that could be ridden.
Dederick’s Steam Man did have an enormous impact on the science fiction of the day, as can be seen in the novel The Steam Man of the Prairies or The Huge Hunter by Edward Sylvester Ellis (which can be read in its entirety here). The book was published in 1868, the same year the Steam Man was unveiled in Newark and depicts a robot designed to pull carriages which in turn inspired numerous other knockoffs and similar stories. It has been suggested by some that the Steam Man had been a huge influence on Ellis when he wrote the story.
Today, very few are familiar with Zadoc Dederick and his Steam Man (aka Daniel Lambert), despite the impact the robot had on science fiction. Dederick himself did not publish any other well-known patents, although one in particular involved a device that could automatically sort and deliver mail by traveling along wires (almost like the drones used by Amazon to deliver packages). Despite this, it is important to remember Dederick for his attempts at introducing robots during a time when machinery relied on steam power and horses.