In a world of tinkerers and steam-powered gadgets, the government had moved to seize all control of what could be made by its country's population.
Only a select few were truly allowed to become inventors, and that was because they had to go through a very specific licensing process. Anyone caught creating items classified as inventions (due to either their novelty or their advanced use of current technology) that wasn't a licensed inventor was subject to heavy punishments. Jail time was often only the beginning for those unfortunate souls that got caught. Some of them, depending on the apparent usefulness of the invention, would simply disappear from life altogether, though signs pointed to these people still being alive somewhere.
However, those who managed to get an inventor license were not given free reign. A certain committee oversaw the approval of anything that could advance technology or was novel; in other words, no invention saw the light of day without the approval of this committee. The primary criteria for approval was "the usefulness of the invention for the people," or so they often claimed. However, whether or not something was deemed useful (for the people, always for the people) was arbitrary at best.
Anyone who paid close attention to the approval documents (assuming they had access) would notice that an awful lot of gadgets with potential military applications filled the filing cabinets of approved documents. It was rare that an invention was approved if its purpose was "miscellaneous" or "entertainment." Sure, a few quality-of-life-adjusting implements and humorous knickknacks would slip through every once in a while, but generally they were deemed "useless" and condemned to be scrapped.
Dirk Wellsley was a licensed inventor who had managed to get quite a few of his inventions approved. However, it seemed that he was, ironically, starting to run out of steam for coming up with novel ideas that could still be approved. His last few invention attempts were rejected with requests for revisions, which meant that while they weren't useless enough to merit punishment, they needed to be made "more useful." Those revisions had yet to be made before he sent in an application for a completely different invention.
Today, Dirk stood in front of the committee and set a small humanoid-looking contraption down in front of them. The chairman of the committee cleared his throat. "Mr. Wellsley, declare for us all the name and function of your new invention."
Dirk did as he was told, for the most part. "The name of this invention is Distinct Automaton. The function..." Here he diverged from the script that invention presenters were expected to follow. "Why don't I just show you?" He then proceeded to wind a dial on the back of the gizmo and push down a valve on its head. Soon, a rhythmic clicking and buzzing came from the automaton, punctuated by steam whistling out of its head like a boiling tea kettle. It began to march around the room to the rhythm of its noise, periodically stopping to emit long notes of steam.
Basically, the Distinct Automaton's purpose was to dance and create its own music. Eventually, after about two minutes, it let out the rest of its steam, gave a bowing gesture, and became dormant once more. When Dirk scanned the faces of the committee members, he was sure that several of them were trying to hide some form of amusement, whether it was at the automaton or at Dirk for creating such a peculiar work. Only the chairman remained stone faced.
"You didn't declare the function of this invention," he mumbled, exasperated sharpness creeping into his voice.
"The function is to produce music and motion," Dirk said, finally humoring the chairman.
The chairman didn't seem terribly humored, nonetheless. "Mr. Wellsley, you are aware that you're walking a very thin line with this committee, aren't you?"
"I'm sure you can think of a way it can be useful," Dirk answered, maintaining a friendly tone.
With a sigh the chairman shuffled some papers. "Please go outside. The committee has much to discuss."
For some reason, Dirk felt no anxiety about dancing around the committee's thin red line of usefulness. Everything he made was enough to potentially be useful with a few tweaks, yet not flagrantly useless enough to condemn him. Sure, he'd probably have to add some form of military use to his automaton, but that was nothing compared to the joy he got from messing with the committee's heads, even briefly.