What is Steampunk? This is a common question, even for those who have been around SteamPunk culture for some time.
TheTechnically speaking, Steampunk is an aesthetic style combining elements of Victorian era fashion with modern technology and gadgets. It’s the love child of the Age Of Steam.
The simple answer is: we don’t exactly know. That’s not entirely true; we do know some things, but the question “what is Steampunk?” means different things to different people and draws from such a wide range of influences that it becomes nearly impossible to settle on a single definition.
The most common, general definition available at this time is, “Steampunk is an aesthetic of technology and objects created by artists, designers, writers and inventors who imagine the past, or some time after the present, as a period in which steam power is widely used—usually Victorian era Britain or America.”
However, that’s just one definition of Steampunk. It’s often broken down into sub-divisions based on what elements are included or excluded and the location and time period. For example Dieselpunk (technology powered by diesel engines) and Clockwork Punk (powered by clockwork mechanisms).
Similarly, the history of Steampunk is a bit more complicated than ‘punk’ would suggest; there is no singular event, person, or object that created Steampunk. It’s a combination of historical and cultural elements that, when put together, create the identity we recognize as Steampunk today.
Steampunk draws from many different sources and people often cite entirely different creators or events as being influential to its creation or popularization. So how did it start? That depends on who you ask.
What is Steampunk?
The answer to that question is changing every day, but generally speaking, it’s an aesthetic of creativity inspired by science fiction and fantasy technologies, aesthetics typically based in the Victorian era, and literature which often includes elements of speculative fiction like alternate history or dystopian futures.
It’s a broad range of ideas and not everyone likes the same parts. However, there are common themes: technology that could have been built but wasn’t because it didn’t fit with society at that time or was just plain impossible to build or understand. It builds from old technologies and the desire to see them work in ways never accomplished in the past.
When we look at the earliest example of Steampunk, many people turn to Babbage’s Analytical Engine as a possible start for the movement. Charles Babbage was an inventor and mechanical engineer who designed an early version of a programmable computer called The Difference Engine. He then turned his attention to what he named “The Analytical Engine”.
Examples of Steampunk in modern art
Examples in modern art can be found in the work of Leonardo Pereznieto, whose “Arbol de Tesoros” series of digital art pictures create a visual representation of a sequence from Steampunk classic The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Pereznieto’s images are based on a story about an early information technology device, which was never built.
The next possible contender for the start of Steampunk is Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1870).
The combination of a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and submarine make this book a popular example of what might be regarded as Steampunk. Elements like the diving suit and submarine show how Steampunk is inspired by and different from (but often overlaps with) Dieselpunk and/or Clockpunk.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the inspiration for many Steampunk objects including gun lamps. Some fans of science fiction may recognize this as a predecessor to more modern pieces such as Darth Vader’s lightsaber which can remind us of the Star Wars origins of many other modern works.
Many people also look to a novel called The Difference Engine, written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, as a starting point for Steampunk fiction. This 1990 work is often credited with popularizing Steampunk as a genre.
The first edition cover from 1991 was designed by the author Bruce Sterling. It features a character from the story holding a Steampunk raygun and wearing Victorian era diving gear with an early diving suit on the ground.
The earliest known “Steampunk” outfit was created by Kato of the rock band Steam Powered Giraffe for Halloween in 2008, which consisted of mostly items scavenged from thrift stores.
This began a tradition of SteamPunk inspired Halloween costumes and the term “SteamPunk” was eventually adopted by fans to describe such outfits.
Another possible starting point for Steampunk is when Katherine Niles, better known as Cat Rambo, founded the first steampunk literary magazine in 2010: The SEA Is Ours.
Niles is a friend of Brooke Johnson who was working on steampunk-themed art at the time and the owner of an Etsy shop featuring her own original designs; she contacted Rambo to ask what she thought about starting a magazine. Rambo agreed it sounded like a good idea. They brought in other people, including Christina Lake and Tansy Rayner Roberts, and the first issue was published in January 2010.
This literary magazine went on to become one of many prominent Steampunk art magazines that support writers and artists while also promoting the fashion itself.
The term “SteamPunk” was coined by science fiction writer KW Jeter in 1987 while he was writing The Glass Hammer, which was an early work of Steampunk fiction.
He originally used the term “SteamPunk” as a label for his new style of retro-futuristic science fiction writing. This subgenre draws its inspiration from 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. This reflects the fundamental aspects of Steampunk which are more focused on the 19th century rather than any earlier centuries.
Jeter’s first use of the term was in an interview which appeared in volume 2, number 3 (Fall 1989) issue of Nightmare Magazine where he was quoted saying:
“I came up with the word ‘steampunk’ because I felt that what I was doing was distinct from cyberpunk, which is the other great influence on my writing”.
Steampunk fiction draws its inspiration mainly from 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. This reflects the fundamental aspects of Steampunk which are more focused on the Victorian era rather than earlier centuries.
When Jeter wrote The Glass Hammer he was imagining a world in which the American Civil War was still being fought in the 1950s. The book is a subtle mixture of Steampunk and Dieselpunk elements but it wasn’t until the 1990s that these two genres began to become more clearly distinct from each other.
Jeter has since written several further novels which feature Steampunk themes such as Morlock Night (1979), Infernal Devices (1987) and Dr. Adder (Kodius Prime) (1974).
Another possible starting point for Steampunk may be the 1989 album The Golden Age of Steam by Big Engine, which is now no longer in print.
The Golden Age of Steam has nothing to do with traditional Victorian era Steampunk elements but it does use the general concept of Steampunk in order to add a modern spin on what were originally 19th century technologies such as steam-powered machines.
The cover art features an airship flying above a city and is very cyberpunk in style, much like The Glass Hammer. However, the album’s main musical inspirations are classic Prog Rock bands such as Yes, ELP and Genesis.
As a result, the album has very little in common with Victorian era Steampunk or Diesel Punk fiction but it does contain some elements that are worthy of mention due to their possible influence on later Steampunk music projects.