Molly Porkshanks Friedrich's Mechanical Womb on display at the Oxford History of Science MuseumI expected to be able to hear Molly Porkshanks Friedrich’s Complete Mechanical Womb tick. It didn’t look as though it should pulse with life, but I did anticipate a mechanical buzzing or whirring. I was alone in the basement of Oxford’s history of science museum, at what the museum billed as “the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art.” I’m sure the little figure in the gravid pneumatic tube was honoured by the distinction. After a few moments, I stopped holding my breath and wandered around the corner to look at a piece of Charles Babbage’s difference engine (is there a history of science museum in the UK that doesn’t have a cog or two from Babbage’s computer?).

The Victorians exhibited their own mechanical wombs. Popular objects of display at fairs and exhibitions, in the 1890s baby-incubators were “not only…sterile, self-regulating, and superintended by professionals, they were also aesthetically pleasing” (Durbach 25). The incubator’s attraction was its novelty, its modernity. Friedrich’s mechanical womb is also aesthetically pleasing, but it is separated from its Victorian counterpart by the Steampunk ethos: to the Victorians their own era was relentlessly modern, for the Steampunks the Victorian era is delightfully behind the times.

What of Victorian Studies scholars? Are we compelled to search out segments of Babbage’s difference engine because they are old or because they were new?

Durbach, Nadja. “Baby Incubators and the Prosthetic Womb.” Victorian Review 35.2 (2009): 23-27.

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