The First Cyborg Horror Story: “The Steam Arm” Ballad of 1834-35

In 18th and 19th century England, the ballad — sung in the street, in pleasure gardens, in taverns, or in private house parties — functioned as pure entertainment for the masses. But it was also a vehicle for news and for an expression of popular sentiment. Widespread discontent, whether with new technologies or specific political acts of Parliament, were expressed in ballad form. Ballads were sold in single-page broadsides like the one you see here, often with a somewhat shocking picture.

In the early 1830s, one of the discontents captured in ballads was the effect of steam power, especially the way the steam locomotive was changing the English countryside for the worse. Various ballads expressed this discontent, but few so vividly as "The Steam Arm."

The estimated date of composition for "The Steam Arm" is 1834 or 1835. Its author(s) remain unknown, but its emphasis on a soldier's lost limb might hint at the ballad's author's background. While the British armed forces were not engaged in any major armed conflicts at this time, the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Anglo-Afghan conflict were full of minor colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia, and it's easily possible that the author of "The Steam Arm" might have lost a limb in one of those.

"The Steam Arm" features the (arguably) first cyborg in popular fiction and the (arguably) first use of the possessed-limb motif which would become common in 20th century horror fiction and film. More importantly, it's an early work of science fiction horror from a time in which horror fiction was still separating itself from its Gothic roots. The contemporary setting and concerns of "The Steam Arm" are a very great distance from the Gothic setting and tropes of much 1830s horror fiction, and its science fictional content makes it possibly unique.

Here is the ballad (you can also read it on the broadside above - just click to expand):

The Steam Arm

Oh! Wonders sure will never cease,
While works of art do so increase;
No matter whether in war or peace,
Men can do whatever they please.
Ri too ral, etc.

A curious tale I will unfold
To all of you, as I was told,
About a soldier stout and bold,
Whose wife, ‘tis said, was an arrant scold.
Ri too ral, etc.

At Waterloo he lost an arm,
Which gave him pain and great alarm;
But he soon got well, and grew quite calm,
For a shilling a day was a sort o' balm.
Ri too ral, etc.

The story goes, on every night
His wife would bang him left and right;
So he determined, out of spite,
To have an arm, cost what it might.
Ri too ral, etc.

He went at once, strange it may seem,
To have one made to work by steam,
For a ray of hope began to gleam,
That force of arms would win her esteem.
Ri too ral, etc.

The limb was finished, and fixed unto
His stump of a soldier neat and true;
You'd have thought it there by nature grew,
For it stuck to its place as tight as glue.
Ri too ral, etc.

He started home and knocked at the door,
His wife her abuse began to pour;
He turn'd a small peg, and before
He'd time to think, she fell on the floor.
Ri too ral, etc.

With policemen soon his room was fill'd,
But every one he nearly killed;
For the soldier's arm had been so drill'd,
That once in action, it couldn't be still'd.
Ri too ral, etc.

They took him, at length, before the mayor,
His arm kept moving all the while there;
The mayor said ‘Shake your first if you dare,'
When the steam arm knocked him out of the chair.
Ri too ral, etc.

This rais'd in court a bit of a clamour,
The arm going like an auctioneer's hammer;
It fell in weight like a paviour's rammer,
And many with fear began to stammer.
Ri too ral, etc.

He was lock'd in a cell for doing harm,
To satisfy those who had still a qualm,
When all at once they hear an alarm,
Down fell the walls and out popp'd the arm.
Ri too ral, etc.

He soon escap'd and reach'd his door,
And knock'd by steam raps half a score;
But as the arm in power grew more and more,
Bricks, mortar and wood soon strew'd the floor.
Ri too ral, etc.

With eagerness he stepp'd each stair,
Popp'd into the room–his wife was there;
‘Oh! Come to my arms', he said, ‘my dear';
When his steamer smash'd the crockery ware.
Ri too ral, etc.

He left his house, at length, outright,
And wanders now just like a sprite;
For he can't get sleep either day or night,
And his arm keeps moving with two-horse might.
Ri too ral, etc.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.