Thursday 11 February 2016


The year 1784 past with little change in global affairs.  The American War of Independence had finished eight years before and the French Revolution was still five years away. However, it could be argued that by the years end ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ that had dominated European culture for almost a century had faded and the new ideas of manufacturing processes, ‘The Industrial Age’, dominated the minds of progressive thinkers.

In England the year began with the coldest winter since 1740 (due to an eruption of a volcano in Iceland) and continued into the driest summer on record. As the weather was then, as now, the main topic of conversation these extremes gave the inhabitants of Britain much pleasurable grumbling. 

In January Henry Cavendish, a natural philosopher (the term scientist would not be used for a further hundred years) published a paper called ‘Experiments on Air’ which revealed the composition of water. Generally this went unnoticed as the populace were less concerned with the ingredients of air and water than with how long it would be before the government found a way to tax these necessities.

On the 2nd of August at 4.00 p.m., the first mail coach ran from Bristol to London. As the journey only lasted 16 hours some might argue that a letter sent then would probably arrive at its destination faster than one sent today by first class post.

That same month the Scottish apothecary James Tytler made the first hot air balloon ascent in Britain, achieving a height of some 350 feet. However, on later attempts his balloon would only take off after Tytler left the basket and instead of rising into the air he was plunged into bankruptcy.

This did not discourage Vincenzo Lunardi demonstrating a hydrogen balloon flight in London accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. The 24-mile flight was considered a great success, albeit the cat didn’t complete the entire journey, and ballooning became a fashionable enterprise.

The Industrial Revolution continued to progress that year when Henry Cort created a ‘pudding furnace’ capable of creating great volumes of high-grade bar iron, and Edmund Cartwright designed his first power loom. The cogs were turning that would eventually produce the "dark satanic mills" of William Blake's poem.

The year closed with the death of Samuel Johnson, writer and lexicographer, and as such probably heralded the end of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’.

All these things and a thousand like them came to pass in this year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty four.

The 1784 of this tale isn’t all that different, albeit the skies do glitter with impossible crafts and powerful steam driven vehicles cross the land. The fear of the (fictitious) Fen Pirates that steam power would drain the marshes around the coast of the Wash was well founded. By the 1820s the wind pumps were replaced with powerful coal-powered steam engines. In time these themselves would be replaced with diesel-powered pumps and finally the small electric stations that are still used today. The Fens would become rich agricultural fields with only the drains and dikes reminding one that these were once vast wetlands.

In the space of fifty years a landscape that had remained almost untouched since the deforestation of the 12th century would be transformed. In time the great steam pumps would have a thousand descendants and be replaced with a force that binds the universe itself… The Nuclear Age.

It is into this world that the little characters of this tale plunge headlong, caught in a current that they can have no control over, towards a future that they can barely comprehend.