Archive for Winans Steam Gun

Book Signing/ Presentation on Steam Gun at Harper’s Ferry

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2012 by secondmdus

The Steam Gun from an 1861 English Publication

Steam powered weapons are a staple of steampunk literature, art, and fashion, but in 1861 Harper’s Ferry played a part in the story of the “Winans” Steam Gun. “Its tough to imagine Harper’s Ferry as enemy territory, but in May 1861, Federal troops captured a steam gun, allegedly built by Maryland industrialist Ross Winans as it was being transported to Harper’s Ferry” says John Lamb, author of A Strange Engine of War: The “Winans” Steam Gun and Maryland in the Civil War. “ The men captured with it hoped to sell it to the Confederate troops there.”


John Lamb

While the gun never made it to Harper’s Ferry, Lamb will share its story with patrons of Steam at Harper’s Ferry on May 6. “Steam is a steampunk art and gift shop. What better place to share the story of such an outlandish, but entirely real Civil War device?” Lamb says. “Steampunk is a literary, artistic, fashion, and musical movement that starts with Victorian aesthetics, keeps things steam powered while taking technology and society in different directions. While contemporary to us, its roots go back to the 19th Century.”

“One of the frequent themes of steampunk literature, is inventors toiling in obscurity on their creations – that is a pretty fair synopsis of the steam gun’s creation by Charles Dickinson and William Joslin,” Lamb says. What started as an effort to build a hand powered “centrifugal” gun by the men, grew into a steam powered weapon that rocketed to national prominence in the wake of the April 19, 1861 Baltimore Riot.

The gun’s menacing appearance and its arrival on the public stage at the height of anxiety after the riots helped bury its true origin, and forever linked it to noted Maryland industrialist Ross Winans through newspapers at time and through many books and historical articles over the years. While the basic facts of the story were talked about Imageat the time, they soon faded from memory, according to Lamb. “Newspaper articles around the 50thanniversary (1911), helped bring out the story of its last days,” Lamb says. “During the 100th anniversary (1961), a replica was built for a reenactment of the gun’s capture. In 2007, Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel put the idea of the gun to the test. My book, published in 2011, continues the gun’s 50 year cycle of returning at key anniversaries for another round of publicity.”

Lamb’s interest in the gun was sparked when he found an engraving of it while working on another project in the early 1990s. “My curiosity about it began simply – what was it, was it dangerous? What happened to it? The more source materials I read, the less sense it all made – with good reason – the accepted account of events had little to do with what really happened.” Lamb says. “I worked on it here and there as I could and slowly a more complete account of the gun emerged. Being on Mythbusters spurred me to complete my work and put out a book, which came out in 2011. I have really enjoyed uncovering the true story of the Steam Gun, and am looking forward to sharing it with gallery guests at Steam at Harpers Ferry.”

If You Go: Historical Presentation/ Book Signing with John Lamb, Author of A Strange Engine of War: The “Winans” Steam Gun and Maryland in the Civil War, 2-4 p.m., Sunday, May 6, Steam at Harper’s Ferry, 180 High Street, 1B (on the stairs), Harper’s Ferry, WV, 25425. For more information visit,, call 304-885-0094 or send an email to

About John Lamb

John W. Lamb, author of A Strange Engine of War: The “Winans” Steam Gun and Maryland in the Civil War works in communications and development in the non-profit sector, is interested in Maryland’s Civil War history, 19th Century technology and shapenote singing, and appeared on the Discovery Channel’s *Mythbusters* series episode regarding the Winans Steam Gun. He lives in Harrison, Tennessee, with his wife and 3 children.

About Steam

Steam at Harper’s Ferry is a Victorian/Steampunk themed art gallery and gift shop located in the historic lower town of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Steam at Harper’s Ferry has quarterly openings and features local and regional artists.

The Winans Steam Gun (1861) 0n Mythbusters in 2007

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Civil War Guns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2008 by secondmdus

By John Lamb

The “Winans” Steam gun aka the Baltimore Steam Battery, the Baltimore Steam Gun, and Dickinson’s Patent Centrifugal Gun, rocketed to national prominence after the April 19, 1861 clash between secessionists and Federal troops in Baltimore, Maryland. Readers of newspapers across the United States learned of a strange, and allegedly powerful steam powered weapon brought forth to fend off more Union troops seeking to pass through the town by rail to Washington.

Though it was invented and built elsewhere, the gun quickly became associated with Ross Winans, a pioneering locomotive builder, and inventor of an unorthodox class of steamships – the Winans Cigar ships. Since then the gun has become a familiar part of the story of the riot’s aftermath. It has been counted as his invention ever since, though his connection to it has been greatly exaggerated thanks to hundreds of secondary sources that incorporate incorrect information.

The account that follows is based on more than 10 years research on the gun in period publications and other sources for a book that is being developed on it.

Rather than being the invention of a rich Marylander, the gun in fact grew out of work by Ohio inventors William Joslin and Charles S. Dickinson on a hand-powered centrifugal gun. After the two had a falling out, Dickinson promoted the device under his name, and found funding to build a new steam powered gun in Boston in 1860. He brought the device to Baltimore where it was publicly exhibited.

After April 19, 1861, the gun was taken from Dickinson and/ or his associates by city police to be put in readiness for use if needed. Available evidence suggests that the gun was take to foundry/machine shop of Ross Winans and his son Thomas who had been engaged by city’s Board of Police to make pikes, shot and other munitions items. Shortly after, the gun was taken from the Winans’ facility and publicly displayed with other weapons being gathered by city authorities.

In the excitement of the times, Ross Winans’ public involvement in state’s right politics in Maryland, his great fortune, word of the munitions work being done at his factory for the city, and city defense appropriations became mixed in the press, and were carried in papers across the country.

After calm returned, the gun was taken again to Winans shop for repair at city expense, then returned to Dickinson, who then attempted to take it to Harper’s Ferry to sell to Confederate forces. Union forces captured the gun, intact, in mid journey and took it to their camp at Relay, Maryland.

His association with the gun, his politics and rumors of his munitions making led to Ross Winan’s arrest and a brief detention by Federal forces. He was released after 48 hours, after agreeing that he would not take up arms against the government.

The gun was eventually sent to Annapolis, then to Fortress Monroe, and eventually to Massachusetts. It would be exhibited at various events long after the war but would eventually be scrapped at the end of the 19th century.

It is perhaps the best known, yet most widely misunderstood steam gun of the Civil War period.

About John Lamb

John Lamb

The author of this account was featured in Mythbuster’s episode #93 – Confederate Steam Gun that premiered in December 2007.  Thanks to Mythbusters, his research was noted in an extensive story in the Baltimore Sun.

Lamb has published several articles on Maryland Civil War topics, is the creator of, has produced six field recordings of shapenote singing, and is currently at work on several historical book projects. He is the author of A Strange Engine of War: The “Winans” Steam Gun and Maryland in the Civil War, published in 2011.

centrifugal gun, winans steam gun, steam gun, baltimore steam gun, centrifugal force gun, civil war steam machine gun, centrifugal gun, centrifugal gun, centrifugal weapon