The sub-culture of Steampunk as we know it today actually began as an outdated prediction of the future originating in 19th century Victorian writing. At that time, literature was becoming more popular to an increasingly better-educated society that had the industrial means to mass-produce and distribute it. Industrial advancement was flourishing, so technological possibilities for the future became a popular focus for science-fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Jules Verne, in particular, wrote books such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days that painted a picture of a future that was actually closer than expected. As his books of the future became outpaced by real-life industrialization, his stories just seemed out-of-date to the Victorian public. However, in the mid-1920’s filmmakers of a movie called “The Mysterious Island” decided to use Verne’s imagined future as an alternate universe for the setting of their story. Instead of trying to update his inaccurate ideas they became a thing in itself entirely. Even though the movie was not very successful (and neither were the few other films that referenced Verne’s ideas at the time), it lead the way for Disney about 20 years later. Science fiction was back in the spotlight after WW2 due to the Space Race, fear of an apocalypse and atomic tragedies, and xenophobia. In 1954 Disney released 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which brought the attention back to Verne’s ideas very effectively. Filmmakers began releasing many movies with the same theme, including an animation of “The Mysterious Island” by Ray Harryhausen. Despite this attention, the emphasis on science-fiction waned greatly at the end of the 1960’s, and Verne’s themes waned with it, becoming dated once again. However, the Victorian Era was still of interest to some, and became noticed once again through K.W. Jeter, an author within the newly created genre of Cyberpunk. He coined the term “Steampunk” in a letter to the Locus company: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps...” The Cyberpunk genre consists of themes of futuristic (but not too futuristic) technology. To K.W. Jeter, Steampunk was similar, except instead of using technology predicted for the real future, it would be from another in Victorian England where steam was the primary source of energy. With this concept in mind, Jeter and his friends James Blaylock and Tim Powers began writing and publishing books with this newly named “Steampunk” theme. Many authors such as Paul Di Filippo, Stephen Baxter, and Diane Duane began following their example, along with other influences from 19th century England, and over time themes of Steampunk developed not only as a movement in literature, but also in cinema, videogames, art, and fashion, becoming a sub-culture of modern society.
What Is Steampunk?
Steampunk is a very unique genre that is growing in popularity and I have seen this first hand at conventions. Steampunk is the alternative history in which the Victorian Era never ended and that petroleum never took off as a source of power leaving steam to be the ultimate source of power. Steampunk is based around this alternative history and since it never really happened it is a fantasy of sorts that can be difficult to define. As a group we set out to define steampunk as one of our initial steps before we moved into our individual categories. I thought defining steampunk would be an easy task and that steampunk was a broad theme. It turns out steampunk is a lot more specific than we envisioned and that steampunk is not the only “punk” out there. Punks such as dieselpunk, biopunk, and Teslapunk are a few that share similarities with steampunk. By defining steampunk in a more specific way we are able to differ steampunk from the others so that we can correctly label and assess different steampunk medias. We decided that the best way to define steampunk was to give it rules or a criteria to follow. With these set of rules classifying something as steampunk or pseudo-steampunk would be much easier and also easier for readers to understand the thought process behind the assessments. The rules are as follows:
1. Must be Victorian. If set in future must contain elements of victorianism. If setting is outside of England it must be Victorian-esque.
2. Steam power is the source of power and obsession with steam power must be present. Overly complex steam powered machines or gadgets are a must preferably with the inner workings and structural components exposed or visible. This is also why you need goggles. Without this steam power obsession it might as well be purely Victorian and not Steampunk.
3. Means of travel include: Rigged air ships, trains, coal powered ships, steam-powered cars.
4. Minimal reliance on electricity or petroleum.
5. Magic can be present but technology must be of higher importance.
6. Elements of steampunk fashion include: Goggles, brass/copper, clocks, monocles, leather, gears, pipes, phonographs, sepia, wood with metal trim, top hats, lace corsets, overcoats, and vests.
7. Anything that steps outside of these rules will be labeled as Pseudo-steampunk or another sub-genre of punk.
There are other elements to keep in mind when defining steampunk as well. Steampunk is the Victorian era mixed with science. Steampunkers borrow from both the future and the past. Steampunkers will look to the past to make sense of the future. They also don’t stay in the past or stay in the future consistently, they blend the both together. Steampunkers will often repurpose old objects and give them a new purpose or an upgrade. They also get a connection through creating handmade objects. These are just a few characteristics of steampunk and some of them intermix with characteristics of other ‘punks’. Using these rules will set steampunk aside from the other similar ‘punks’.
Steampunk began as a literary concept that formed from a combination of American dime novels and Victorian cultural influences. The first foundational novels written under the name of Steampunk came from Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter. Morlock Night, by K.W. Jeter 1979 This book is basically a continuation of H.G. Well’s the Time Machine. A futuristic race called Morlocks obtain Well’s time machine and use it to invade London in the 19th century. This story is still very experimental and also combines Arthurian Legend and Atlantis, so it is not strictly Victorian. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers 1983 The Anubis Gates is about an English professor who time travels to 1810 so he could attend a lecture by an English poet. He is not able to return back to his own time so he has to try to survive an evil Egyptian god and a clown sorcerer. It is very much a fantastical world but it takes place during George III’s reign instead of in the Victorian Era. However, Jeter still considers it a Victorian Fantasy. Homunculus, by James Blaylock 1986 A character named Professor Langdon St Ives and his friend Shiloh are interested by a ghost-like zeppelin that orbits around Victorian London. It was believed that Shiloh’s father, who was an alien, was on it. The bad guy, Narbando, does not know this and is being paid to try to bring Shiloh’s mother back to life. Narbando and his partner Kelso Drake take over the airship and use it as a brothel. Professor Langdon learns that Narbando is likely raising people from the dead for evil purposes. Eventually a great war starts in order to stop Narbando. The technology in this book is steam-based and takes place in Victorian England, so it is saturated with elements of Steampunk. Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy by K.W. Jeter 1987 A character named George Dower is an English gentleman who has inherited his father’s clockwork shop. One of his customers claims that he has a watch that needs fixing that was made by George’s father. He is then pulled into conflicts with the Royal Anti-Society, the Godly Army, and the Ladies Union for the suppression of Carnal Vice. George finds out later that his father was so skilled at clockwork that he even made a clockwork duplicate of George himself, except with enhanced sexual abilities. Eventually George gets kidnapped by a woman who thinks that he is the clockwork human. Steampunk elements are shown through the fantasy elements and the strong emphasis on clockwork. http://steampunkworkshop.com/nine-novels-defined-steampunk
Steampunk is a science fiction genre and by definition is not always scientifically accurate. Steampunk does however tend to follow a trend of getting scientific ideas correct and then running them away from scientific fact. Steampunk science always has its origins in reality. The basic mantra of steam punk science is that your idea can be as far from the truth as it needs to be, so long as it’s based, partly, in reality. This theme can be seen in many steampunk stories such as “Victoria”, a story of how a man makes a human sized newt by using human growth factors. While the idea of using growth factors to make something grow larger and develop different characteristics is based in reality, the idea of giving a newt human qualities and appearances is based in fiction. This tends to hold true in almost all scientific fields. Biological This is the beauty of steampunk science; the idea that anything is possible with the limited technology of the Victorian era is what makes steampunk the genre it is.
Steam is one of the scientific principles that must be followed in all steampunk. Steam is the gaseous, colorless phase of water. Water will become steam at 212°F (100°C) at standard temperature and pressure. When water changes from liquid to gas it expands up to 1600 times its previous size, this is the physical property that is used in steam engines to produce mechanical energy. Steam is what powers all mechanical devices in the steampunk world, from the futuristic trains to fantasy flying ships. The characteristic steam that flows out of many of the machines in steampunk is actually condensing water droplets that are going in and out of the liquid and gas phases of water, producing an opaque white smoke.
Electricity was beginning to develop during the Victorian era and as such can fit into the definition of steampunk, as being an alternate future of the Victorian era, however because it represents the technology that inevitably replaced steam many writers and concept developers tend to steer clear of it. Electricity is one of the strange physical phenomenon’s that haven’t quite found its true place in steampunk. In general electricity is not used in the steampunk genre; however hints of its existence can be seen in some of the technology of the genre. An example of this is Bioshock Infinite; some of the characters have bionic appendages that seem to be electric. Ultimately, steampunk is still a relatively new genre and there are going to be parts of it that are debated among it's followers.
The Steam Engine
The general idea of a steam engine is that a tank, called a boiler, holds water. That water is boiled until it turns into steam and builds up pressure. This pressure is harnessed using an engine with a piston. A valve that lets pressure into one side of the piston is opened while a valve that lets pressure out is opened on the opposite side of the piston to allow the piston to move. When the piston has been pushed completely to one side of its cylinder, the valves are switched to allow pressure in/out on the opposite sides. This then pushes the piston back to its original position. This process is repeated to move the piston back and forth. This piston is normally attached to a wheel that can provide rotational mechanical energy.
History of the Steam Engine
The first steam engine was thought up as early as 1A.D.. Hero's engine, as it was called, was a simple ball filled with water and attached to a stand. The ball had one or two lengths of pipe that protruded on the side of the ball and pointed perpendicular to the face of the ball. The ball was then filled with water and placed over a fire. When the water inside the ball began to boil it would build up pressure and escape through the pipes. This force made the ball spin and produce mechanical energy. This relatively simple engine was very weak and was unable to do significant work.
In 1679 Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine. It was used to pump water out of coal mines. Thomas Newcomb then produced an improved version of a steam engine that used atmospheric pressure to help produce energy. The engine worked by allowing pressurized steam to enter a cylinder, pushing a piston up. Cold water was then introduced to the cylinder to create a vacuum, pulling the piston back down. This created an up and down motion to produce mechanical energy. This engine was also used to pump out water from mines.(4)
James Watt produced the next major improvement to the steam engine. He added a condenser to the engine allowing the cylinder to remain hot when condensing the steam back into water. His design was the most used engine of its day and inevitably brought about the industrial revolution.(4)
The genera of steampunk is filled with magnificent mechanisms that work similarly to the way our electronic devises work today, with others that are much more complicated and unique than today's machines. The name clockwork comes from the complexity of mechanical pocket watches that were used during the Victorian era. Examples of these devises are the mechanical spider found in the movie "Wild Wild West" and the flying ships in the game "Guns of Icarus". These Clockwork machines generally appear to be made up mostly of gears and spring like their namesake the mechanical watch.
Just like the definition of steampunk, the rules that govern steampunk fashion vary by individual, and that is why it makes this sense of style so alluring. This is evident when one sees all of the different and unique costumes steampunkers fabricate; each particular costume reflecting what steampunk means to them. Women in particular enjoy this flexible sense of self-expression because they are not restricted from incorporating male stereotypical themes for their costumes. However, regardless if you are a male or female, common trends do show up consistently with the steampunk fashion world:
I would argue that the use of goggles is seen in almost all steampunk costumes. Each pair of goggles uniquely stands out and differs per person. They are worn on the head, hang on the hips, around the neck, around ones forehead; it just depends on the steampunker.
The use of Clock accessories are by far the most salient theme in steampunk costumes. Steampunkers like to attach clock pieces wherever there is room on their costume.
Steampunkers typically include their goggles on their top hat with feathers or clock accessories. Tops hats also range in size from small to really big and tall. The color of top hats depends on the theme of the steampunker’s costume.
Beaten and weathered boots
This is a picture simple beaten and weather boot used by most steampunkers. Steampunkers usually customize their boots with clock accessories too and range in colors as well. It is not must, but it is popular footwear.
Women who want to wear a corset can do so without a Victorian style dress. Many women steampunkers wear their corsets with shorts, skirts, leather pants, etc…
Rumble Waist Coat
The rumble waist coat can be used by both men and women. Some are made specifically for women or men; however there are a few women who do use men rumble waist coats. Women who choose not use a corset will end up wearing a rumble waist coat instead…or both.
Weapons steampunkers carry with them to accentuate their costumes include melee weapons, nerf guns, blades, swords, shields, bow and arrows, just to name a few.
Keep in mind that these common steampunk fashion trends can be mixed with other science fiction themes since steampunk is sub-genre of science fiction as a whole. For example, many steampunkers wear wings of some sort on their back, elf ears, and even gas masks. For those who are not science fiction fans, but want to be part of this sub-culture can take a simple cop or cowboy costume and steampunk it with some of the fashion trends mentioned above. Surprisingly, steampunk fashion has influenced the prominent and legendary Dolce and Gabanna’s 2006 fall collection. This goes to show the reputation and popularity steampunk fashion has gained over the years.
Art & Design
As one can obviously tell, a man stands in the middle of a water wheel; facilitating its movement (in the first thumbnail below). On the second thumbnail, a man peddles an interconnected set of wheels to power the light bulb in front of him. Even though the devices in these two pictures are not steam powered, both of the models are wearing steampunk costumes. Again, leaving it up to the artist to decide what is and is not steampunk.
On the first thumbnail below, a steampunk animal, in this case, a bird, wears a steampunk inspired outfit with a top hat and a cane, and the one below the bird, a robotic butterfly with colorful wings made out of stained glass stands on a thorn bush. These two pictures show how much flexibility steampunk art has in terms of expression. No rules or restrictions govern this form of art.
Common elements from steampunk fashion blend in and are seen in steampunk art and design. For example, clocks and steam engine powered machines and devices. The use of creative metal work is also heavily incorporated in steampunk art as well. One of the most interesting pieces of things that have spawned from the influence of steampunk is what I call a steampunk animals or bugs. Real ordinary people also take part in steampunk art.
In the fantasy world of steampunk, the architecture depicted in paintings and pictures includes large castle-like buildings clustered tightly together, or clustered homes and neighborhoods. Smoke from steam powered machines pollutes the air; generating a gloomy atmosphere. Amplifying the gloominess is the darkness of the buildings and the time of day, which in most of the pictures I have examined takes place during the night or late afternoon.
Combining the architecture, fantasy, steampunk animals, steampunk weapons, etc…, certain steampunk artists draw and paint pictures of wars and fights between humans and robotic creatures. Remember, for some people, steampunk is said to be an alternative history in our world that never happened. These two pictures excessively exaggerate, but interestingly demonstrate, what wars could have looked if steampunk sunk its way into the world in the future. The first thumbnail below has a giant robot attack what appears to be a train station. Both the giant robot and the train are steam powered; a common theme in steampunk. On the thumbnail below, a man is fighting a robot in an attempt to save an elf looking creature. No such creatures exists in the real life, however, the artist of this picture took sci-fi and mixed it up with steampunk.
Steampunk elements appear in films quite often. However, despite these elements commonly appearing, finding a popular, purely steampunk film is not easy. I will demonstrate some of the films that I found to be almost or purely steampunk as an example to start by. I will also show examples of steampunk elements in more popular films shows for relatable references.
Steamboy is an animated film released in 2004. It was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo who also directed another famous animated film, Akira. Steamboy is one of the best examples of a steampunk film and is purely steampunk. It is based in Victorian England and incorporates Victorian themes. It is the year 1988 in the movie and steam power is the source of energy and the movie uses this element as one of its cores for its plot. The film title even demonstrates its reliance on steam. There are many different gadgets powered by steam including steampunk styled ships, steam powered trains and the main antagonist uses a large, overly complex steam ship as well.The protagonist even uses a steam powered rocket. The means of travel are clearly steam powered as the examples in the last sentences suggest. The one element of steampunk that Steamboy does not captivate is the style elements. The style isn’t Victorian and is generic. The style could’ve been borrowed from any other time period in the last two hundred years. Below are two videos you can watch to further your understanding even more.
Hugo is a very recent film released in 2011. It is directed by the famous Martin Scorsese who has directed many, many famous and highly acclaimed films. Hugo is an interesting case because Hugo isn’t trying to be steampunk, but it uses many steampunk elements. Hugo is based off a book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It is based in Paris during 1931 in the Gare Montparnasse train station. Many of the scenes take place in the clockworks of the clock at the trainstation. This gives it a very “gear-like” and clockwork appearance that steampunk commonly uses. Steam power is very present in the movie and in the trailer below you can see how steam power helps to create the environment of the movie. However, outside of the steam and gear based environment, Hugo falls short of being a purely steampunk film. It is not based in England, though Paris is close, and there are no strong Victorian elements that steampunk needs to be steampunk.The style is also not steampunk at all, it is very basic 1930’s clothing and style. The steam and clockwork environment gave Hugo a very steampunk-like feel and appearance, but I don’t believe Scorsese intended this film as a steampunk film. I believe he was just recreating the environment in which the book took place. If you have Netflix the full movie is on Netflix at the moment.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released in 2003 and was directed by Stephen Norrington. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based off the graphic novel by Alan Moore. This movie is commonly referred to as a steampunk movie, but while it does include many elements of steampunk, it doesn’t satisfy the criteria we have set. Starting off on why it is considered steampunk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based in Victorian England, 1899 the exact year. The movie is very Victorian invested in its elements and satisfies that criteria. It also a very technologically advanced Victorian era, which is another element of Steampunk. The emphasis on science also puts it in good standing with being a steampunk film. Despite all these important elements of steampunk existing in the movie there is much that puts it out of bounds as a purely steampunk film. Two of the biggest issues with it is use of petroleum and electricity. Though it’s subtle a lot of the lighting is electric. There are multiple vehicles that are gas powered in the film, for example the car used in a chase scene. These issues are likely come from the transition from graphic novel to movie. For example, the submarine used in the movie is not very steampunk inspired, but the one from the graphic novel does. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is pseudo-steampunk, but one can argue that it is purely steampunk. Regardless of classification, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not a good example of a steampunk film.
Wild Wild West
Wild Wild West is a film released in 1999, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and starred Kevin Kline and Will Smith. This film is commonly mentioned when referring to steampunk films. This has a lot to do with the unique gadgets featured in the movie and the giant mechanical spider that the movie is famous for. These gadgets serve as an inspiration for steampunkers to base their works on, but aside from this, Wild Wild West is not steampunk. I don’t even think it is pseudo-steampunk. It is a western with some more modern twists to it. The style is western, the setting is western, and it is a western. Wild Wild West is not a good example of a steampunk movie or a western movie. It’s not hard to see why steampunkers like this movie, but it is not steampunk.
Steampunk elements can be found in video games. Video games are getting more popular as time goes just like steampunk. Video games also give people an opportunity to role play. It would only make sense for them to mix and give people the opportunity to role play as steampunk characters, but in a virtual world. At the moment there is no popular, purely steampunk video games. This seems to be a consistent theme as steampunk is only a sub-culture at the moment.
Syberia was released for the PC in 2002. This was based around the adventure of a young woman looking for a man to help her take over a toy factory. The game is set in Europe in what appears to be an alternate setting, date uknown. The game is largely a puzzle game in which many of the puzzles are steampunk inspired with gears, springs, or wind-up gadgets. The environment is Victorian inspired yet futuristic. It is not purely steampunk as it includes petroleum use and the clothing style does not match criteria. Despite these elements against it being steampunk, Syberia is largely steampunk and is a good example of a steampunk video game.
Bioshock is a popular video game series that started in 2007 with the game Bioshock. Since then there have been three games released in the series including the original Bioshock. The Bioshock series carries certain elements of steampunk, but Bioshock and Bioshock 2 are arguable more biopunk than steampunk. However, the latest game in the series can be classified as steampunk. Bioshock Infinite is the newest game in the Bioshock series and is very steampunk inspired and immensely popular. The setting is 1912 in a fictional American city named Columbia which is suspended in the air like a giant airship. Steam is the main source of power and Biochock Infinite style uses the general style of steampunk fashion. The playable character’s outfit is very close to what a steampunk cosplayer would wear. The only elements going against it are that it isn’t English and is not very Victorian. Though looking over it all it is safe to classify Bioshock Infinite as steampunk and a good example of steampunk too.
Elder Scrolls Series
The Elder Scroll series is a vastly popular fantasy video game. The Elder Scrolls games are based in a fictional world called Tamriel in which many different races of intelligent creatures live, including humans, elves, orcs, a feline race called the Khajiit, and a lizard-like race called Argonians. The Elder Scroll series is not steampunk at all, the series itself falls under a fantasy and medieval themed genre. One of the races in the game called the Dwemer, also can be called Dwarves. The Dwemer, artifacts, Dwemer dungeons are steampunk. In the Elder Scrolls games, the Dwemer were a very advanced race who used science and magic, but mostly science, to create different machine-like contraptions. These contraptions are used puzzles for the player to solve and often involve: steam power, valves, gears, clockworks, and the metal is a brass color that is consistent with steampunk style. In the game’s lore, the Dwemer have disappeared completely and their location is completely unknown. All of the Dwemer dungeons feature empty underground cities run by steamworks that still function despite the engineers being gone for hundreds of years. Since the Dwemer exist, or don’t exist anymore, in a fictional realm, they cannot be English or Victorian. Despite this the Dwemer can be considered steampunk as they meet most of the criteria.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is a role-playing video game that was released for the PC in 2001. Like the Elder Scrolls series Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is based in a fantasy world with similar races to that of the Elder Scrolls. The game takes place on Arcanum in which there are different regions warring on each other, some use magic and some use technology. The most advanced of the warring regions is coincidentally called the Unified Kingdom. This region is a fantasy version of Victorian England. The Unified Kingdom primarily uses steam powered gadgets, but do have access to some electric powered weapons. From the short trailer you can see the steampunk/Victorian influence on the airship itself. The clothing items for the Unified Kingdom in this game are Victorian inspired as well. Despite being in a fantasy world the Unified Kingdom does demonstrate Victorian inspired themes and embraces elements of steampunk and therefore can be classified as steampunk.