To start off, I'm actually bypassing steampunk completely and heading for the Middle Ages. Why? Because I want to introduce one of the very earliest computers: the astrolabe. Astrolabes are gadgets that let you measure distances, tell time, find your position in the world, and so on, and so on, with a minimum of moving parts.
Here, have a video*:
Neat, huh? Who knew those medieval types were so clever and advanced! And Wujec's only touching the surface, at that.
And now, my own list of things to do with an astrolabe:
- work into a fantasy story, in a cameo role
- work into a fantasy story, in a supporting role
- work into a fantasy story, in a pivotal role
- do what Gibson and Sterling did with the difference engine and The Difference Engine**, except, y'know, earlier
- write an alternate history starting Geoffrey Chaucer. I bet he'd make a great hero.
Then again, with my luck, somebody's probably already done all that. In which case, give me titles! Please!
* In case it's not obvious, I found this on TED.com.
** Steampunk! Alternate history!