This fictional flying machine illustrates the blend of science, science fiction and art that inspires this year’s FRC event.

Today, while writing about a unique event and a uniquely successful high school robotics team, I invite you to accompany me on this little journey from a unique place: Inside my mind.

Sit with me, in the shop classroom at Union High School in La Porte City.

Listen with me as senior Nathan Acuff explains the theme of the FIRST Robotics Competition, and how his team, Fiercely Uknighted Nation (F.U.N.) 6630, succeeded by getting their robot to deliver gears to a simulated steam-powered flying machine while other robots piloted by other teams from other high schools in other states filled the engine with plastic balls representing steam. Together, the three teams successfully activated the propellers of a flying machine, and then the robots climbed aboard this machine for an imaginary flight.

(This is the same event where Vinton teacher Sara Larkin led a team of blind and visually impaired students in their first robotics venture; see that story HERE.

Stick with us for an hour, as several members and mentors of F.U.N. discuss their robot, and the upcoming World Championships in St. Louis.

Now, sit with me an hour later, at my computer, as we stop to think about everything we heard.

Wait a minute, we say: Steam-powered machines can’t fly.

Or can they?

So before we can finish writing about F.U.N. 6630 and the amazing journey they are on, we have to stop to research steam-powered flight.

Turns out, that steam-powered aircraft did, indeed, fly – a little.

Historically speaking, when steam was the main source of power for moving things (trains, especially), the thinkers and inventors and builders of the 19th Century continued the centuries-long quest for human flight by trying to imagine how steam could power something with wings.

Of course, being logical, modern Americans, you and I quickly come to realize that those early inventors had to know that steam-powered aircraft faced one huge obstacle: Weight. Steam power, of course, needs lots of water to turn into steam, as well as something (coal, perhaps) to burn to create the heat that turns water into steam.

And yet, a few guys did succeed in getting steam-powered machines into the air, at least for a short ride. Many inventors (mostly European, we discovered, but you can look those up yourself) experimented with steam-powered helicopters. The only known success with a steam-powered airplane happened in 1933, when the Besler Brothers (George and William) flew their plane near Oakland, Calif. We even watched their first flight, in jumpy black and white movies, on Youtube.

At this point, we stop our research and pondering, and we send an email to Nathan. We ask him if there were any successful flights of steam-powered aircraft.

He responds by sending us the link to the video we just watched, so we know we are on the right track.

Having solved that mystery – at least enough to move on – we then ask ourselves: What on earth is Steampunk?

We find out that this particular word is pretty new (1980-, and best-known among science-fiction fans, especially in Europe. “Steampunk” refers to science fiction novels that include imaginary steam-powered aircraft. It also includes the wildly artistic representations of those machines that accompany those books.

The FIRST Robotics Challenge video made for European teams begins with some animated videos showing a modern rendition of some of these fictional flyers, and uses that word, Steampunk. The official name of the 2017 FRC course is, in fact: “Steamworks.”

Continuing our research, we find another video, this one including an interview with another Dean, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Founder Dean Kamen.

“The only difference between science-fiction and science is timing,” says that Dean, who loves the word “Steampunk.”

Live-streaming from the private jet he is piloting, Kamen tells his colleagues that not that long ago, flying machines like his jet and communication devices like the one he used to speak to people on earth from his plane lived only in the imagination of inventors and “Steampunk” writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Now, he says: Those machines are reality. And turning imagination into reality is one of the main goals of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“We want kids through their FIRST to realize that whatever’s in their imagination can become reality , if they develop the tools – science, technology, engineering – and apply those things to the innovations that turn today’s science-fiction into tomorrow’s science.”

For a while, you and I had been starting to feel guilty about this distracted steam power/Steampunk detour we had taken from telling the story of our new F.U.N. Friends.

But after listening to Other Dean, we realize: Our journey was neither a distraction, nor a detour: It was exactly the kind of journey Dean and his FRC and the other FIRST programs (First Lego League, First Tech Challenge, etc.) seek to inspire.

It is the kind of journey our Fiercely Uknighted Nation pals have been on since January – and the kind of journey that will impact them long after their robot retires. It’s a journey of fun, a journey of imagination, and a journey of working with others to turn something you think up into something you can see.

See more about “Steampunked” and Dean Kamen’s thoughts on science and science fiction below: