A blast from the past

(written in July 2008 for Alt magazine #3 which had the theme "Steam")

"Here you can see a steamer. Before the modern era, steaming was a popular way to cook food, especially vegetables but also meat and fish. Another common way of cooking was boiling, which means heating water to its boiling point and then throwing the food in, but there was a problem with the water leeching out vitamins and phytonutrients from the vegetables. This is why steaming was considered superior."

The pupils stare at the metallic grid with a puzzled look on their faces. I think they trying to decide whether I'm pulling their leg. This is one of my favorite attractions in the museum, and not just because the steamer is my great grandma's.

"This is a so called steam penguin. It was named after the penguin, a now-extinct flightless arctic bird, because it supposedly looks a bit like one - I think it looks more like an elephant, though. People used it for cleaning their apartments, textiles and furniture. This model actually consumes more electricity than everything in your home combined."

"Does it still work?" asks one of the students.

"I think it would, if we could only arrange a suitable form of electricity."

I lead them to our 3D video exhibit. The first video shows a mother steam-breathing her kid who suffers from a bad cold. It takes some explanation to get the concept through. As if they are going to believe that this dramatic infection affected just about everyone, often several times a year. And it was treated with, of all things, steam?

"How come they didn't take pills?" That's what they always ask. And I explain that their pills were not very effective.

Another video shows a cosmetologist cleansing a woman's skin with some kind of a steam apparatus, "to open the pores".

"So in the old times, the steam was kind of like our lasers?"

"Yes," I nod and smile to acknowledge the girl for this clever observation.

"Did the people use steam to power their teleports?" someone else asks.

"I'm not really sure. I'd have to ask my superintendent."

I don't have the heart to tell them the answer. They saw the steam engine of course, but I've yet to be able to figure out how to explain "trains" to them in such a way that they wouldn't think I'm kidding them.