Went to the steampunk festival that my friend Sam is involved with last weekend. Nice event, I couldn’t stay as long as I’d have preferred but had a though provoking conversation while I was there.
Atoms as a problem
If you’re going to scale physical objects down to very small sizes (and to make high tech steampunk happen you kind-of do) then atoms (and quantum effects if you want to go there) become a significant problem.
We have it easy
Given that we’re running into those limitations with our information processing technology and our switching mechanisms need to do no more than gate electrons from passing through, a steampunk analytical system would run into more serious problems.
Scaling for analytical engines
I would imagine a high tech steampunk analytical engine as incorporating tinier and tinier mechanical switching elements in its implementation. Ignoring for the moment square/cube issues (which may actually work in our favor) and gas related effects (vacuum is your friend) the scaling limits would start to pinch rather earlier I’d expect.
You want micron scale switches and gearing as part of your technology. You don’t want to deal with the hassle of building gears with single atom wide teeth or switches with atomic scale switching elements.
Construct a new set of physical laws to suit
I’d suggest an alternate set of physical laws where matter is indeed continuous as the ancients would have expected. You can subdivide a piece of brass into arbitrary smaller fragments and still have the properties of bulk brass.
Build a machine that allows you to manipulate smaller items and then just cascade down to arbitrarily small feature sizes. Add in jacquard loom or player piano style automation and you’re set to start producing fully mechanical analytical engines. In this sort of a universe, nano-tech might actually prove to be more practical than in the one we’ve got. No strange domain transitions as you get smaller and lots of incentive to develop micro-machining technologies.
It would be rather interesting to extrapolate this universe a bit more and think about the other implications. Certainly wouldn’t have radioactivity in the form we currently do as there would be no atoms to fragment. Chemistry would be completely different perhaps involving behaviors more akin to alloying than to chemical bonds.
Interesting set of thought experiments to play with here I’d think.