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I would mention that during the 19th century, people spoke of steam (despite it not being very new, perhaps few people had direct contact with it until steam trains, etc. started to expose people) somewhat like AI (in a Dickens novel, steam engines are discussed by one character as something mysterious).

I think in real life early internal combustion engines that used a very fine pollen and also gunpowder engines might have been made or suggested in the 17th century.

I would guess the first non-steam power in history would Verne where MTO (More Than One) form of transportation is powered by electricity although perhaps compressed air (which I think can be used instead of steam in a modified steam engine) would be mentioned in fiction before electricity.

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    First electric vehicle was apparently built in 1832, so alternatives to steam had stopped being science fiction at this point at the latest: energy.gov/….. Jul 3, 2023 at 8:45
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    What does MTO mean? acronymfinder.com/MTO.html
    – PM 2Ring
    Jul 3, 2023 at 10:43
  • @PM2Ring given that Nautilus was not exactly some OTS hardware, I took MTO to mean "made to order" ;-) Jul 3, 2023 at 11:22
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    There is by now an earlier applicable answer, but the inevitable Kurd Laßwitz in "Two Planets" (1897) has his Martians puzzled that Earth people convert coal into heat and energy instead of using solar power directly. Jul 3, 2023 at 18:30
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    @EikePierstorff: Interesting about the 1832 electric vehicle. A steam vehicle built I think in the 1820s was lobbied against by existing horse-drawn vehicle operators and they succeeded in delaying powered vehicles by decades. Horses seem quaint but I can assure that in 1880s Manhattan, they created pollution problems that were mind boggling although with leaded gasoline's introduction in the 1920s, I think we managed something worse if less obvious.
    – releseabe
    Jul 5, 2023 at 13:18

4 Answers 4

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Possibly 1749

In 1749, Benjamin Franklin wrote about a future electrical party:

A turkey is to be killed for dinner by the electric shock, and roasted by the electric jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle; when the healths of all the famous electricians of England, France, Holland, and Germany, are to be drank [sic] in electrified bumpers, under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.

Source

Franklin, B. (1769) Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America. Newbery, (London), pp. 37–38 (Google Books), cited in Bertucci, Paola. 2007. “Sparks in the Dark: The Attraction of Electricity in the Eighteenth Century.” Endeavour 31 (3): 88–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.06.002.

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Earlier than Verne is Jonathan Swift with the flying Island of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels (1726), which features some sort of magnetic levitation. Even without perusing the original text to see in what detail the mechanism is described there, I am positive that no steam is involved.

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"The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror" by George Griffith in 1893. It started with- and was to some extent constructed around- a penniless inventor who devised a novel and extremely efficient means of motive power, who fell in with anti-Tsarist revolutionaries.

This was 23 years later than "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas" and obviously vastly later than Swift et al., but I'd suggest is worth considering because of the central role of the power source.

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An honourable mention perhaps to Jane Wells Webb's "The Mummy!", written in 1828. The story is set in C22. It includes references to an "electrical machine" for example:

"And does not your honour think I had better give the barley a little rain? It will be all burnt up, if this weather continues; and if your honour approves, it may be done immediately, for I saw a nice black heavy-looking cloud sailing by just now, and I can get the electrical machine out in five minutes to draw it down, if your honour thinks fit."

The author did not think it was a great work (she wrote it in her teens) and she is best known for her works on gardening, however she does imagine things like electricity being used for machines.

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  • It seems like the machine is not powered by electricity but rather accesses electricity assumed to be present in clouds. I think a motor powered by electricity was a new thing in 1828, probably not widely known to non-scientists.
    – releseabe
    Jul 4, 2023 at 1:53
  • Ah, true, most things (eg lawyers) are powered by steam, though their balloon is propelled by some other substance. "Galvanic" is used, but not for any motor that I can identify. Jul 5, 2023 at 6:06

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