Excerpt from “Gentlemen of Steampunk II” by Evan Butterfield
Perhaps no single individual did more to establish the character of what we think of when we hear the phrase, “Imperial Age of Steam” than did Mr. Phenabel Dartsworth. While a minor figure in the annals of imperial history, and certainly little more than a discreet footnote in the archives of the great academies and institutes, Dartsworth nonetheless holds pride of place in the pantheon of those who made the first century of the Steam Empire what it is in the minds of men and women today. For it was Phenabel Dartsworth who, in a dimly-lit workshop situated just off the tiny kitchen of his un-noteworthy flat in the area of the central City known then as Pilford-Temmish (today’s Riverside Muse), invented the augmented disintegumentation-matrix ocular enhancement device—or, as it is more popularly known, the “goggle.”
The early “goggles” created by Dartsworth bear little more than superficial resemblance to the elaborate and stylish eyewear manufactured today by Penthwaiter & Scalpion or Oculusorbis, Ltd., and certainly held none of the modern enhancements we enjoy today. However, though his squint-worthy, bulky, uncomfortable, and variably functional devices are far-removed from even the now-ubiquitous P&S Sinistrae II, Dartsworth is nonetheless rightly called the “Father of the Look,” insofar as the Steam Age is popularly imagined.
In his memoir, ‘Membrances in a Mind’s Eye, Dartsworth described the very evening on which he first conceived of the need for—and basic design of—the ocular enhancement. In a moment of exultant inspiration, he initiated the “look” of an age, the symbol by which a century is instantly recognized:
The air was particularly heavy with particulate that day, and visibility was barely a matter of a few dimly-perceivable feet. The general colour of the day was a grayish yellow, as were many of the days then, and the sun itself was dimly differentiatable as a slightly brighter area of a generally uniform grayish yellow sky. Thornbrussel had introduced the Personal Respirational Filtre the previous year, due to the persistently poor quality of the air giving rise to an endemic of lung ailments, shortnesses of breath, and irritation of the mucinous membranes. I had acquired a P.R.F. for myself, but my eyes were red and swollen from exposure to airborne irritants, the particulate and gaseous by-products of the large-scale coal fires required to run the growing number of machines, coupled with the unregulated production and experimentation then going on with alchymical science, about which little was known but much was being done.
It occurred to me in a moment that what was needed was a P.R.F. for the eye, and in the next moment I realized that while a mere protective filtration-type device could be adapted from simple welders’ goggles, there was an opportunity to not merely protect and maintain vision, but to enhance the individual’s perception of the world about him—particularly when that world was shrouded in mist and murk!
“I set to work immediately, applying my professional knowledge of ocularity (due to my then-employ with a manufacturer of bespoke eyeglass lenses), and adapted a number of filtres, adjustable lenses, and vision-enhancing components that might, to some extent, penetrate the pervasive pollutants and give the wearer a more useful sense of his surroundings, that he might better and more productively perambulate. I showed my work to my employer the following day and—he being an honest man and not one to steal another man’s ideas—sent me directly to the Patent Office, where I registered my first invention, retaining Mr. Fenworthy Ombulant of the illustrious patent law firm of Finister, Raile, Marburky & Ventch as my personal representative in the matter.”
If only the tale had ended there, and it could happily be reported that Phenabel prospered both personally and financially from his success. Alas, however, he was urged by his solicitor, Mr. Ombulant, to sell his patent in toto to a then-obscure maker of eyeglass frames, a Mr. Charles Kenderish Penthwaiter for the sum of ₤45—a notable amount in the previous century, to be sure, but laughably dwarfed by the true value of the patent.
Phenabel only came to realize some years later that Ombulant had been secretly acting as Penthwaiter’s agent. Sadly, Phenabel died in poverty, ironically living long enough to see both the opulent rise of Penthwaiter & Scalpion and the near-universal adoption of what had been—for a brief time, at least—his great invention.
Let us celebrate the brilliant, unfortunate Phenabel Dartsworth, the unsung factorem primaria of the Steam Age’s mise-en-scene!
I’ll be posting more of Evan’s stunning photography in the coming weeks. If you would like to be featured in the Spotlight and you’re an artist, feel free to send your work to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please ensure the images are minimum 950 pixels on the longest side and you’ll need to provide minimum 300 words to accompany each image.
To see what else Evan is up to, please visit his website here: Evan Butterfield Photography