How Steampunk Started?
By Steampunk Origins | Updated Nov 12, 2018
Before it became the full-blown culture, as it is today, Steampunk began as a science-fiction inspired genre in the 1970s. However, many people are curious about how Steampunk started?Steampunk’s main inspiration began way back in the 19th century Victorian era with writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their works of literature had Victorian settings that were the inspiration of steampunk culture more than a century later.
How Steampunk Started
Steampunk culture is mainly motivated by the aesthetics and imagination of the Victorian age in which technology and alternative history reigned supreme over modern technology. It is also inspired by dime novels of the 19th century.
This type of literature was extremely popular during the same period because of their affordability. The target audience for dime novels was low-income readers, with less sophisticated tastes.
The main themes of dime novels were romance, adventure and melodrama. Steampunk culture is more evident in a type of novel known as edisonades.
Edisonades mainly targeted younger readers and were full of stories of steam adventure and inventors of various steam-powered devices.
A good example of a dime novel is Edward S. Eliss’ “The Steam Man of the Prairies”. Many people believe that this novel was the main catalyst in the birth of Steampunk culture.
Another novel that inspired the Steampunk culture is Jules Verne’s “The Steam House”, which follows the adventures of British colonialists traveling by a huge steam-powered elephant.
In general, Steampunk can best be described as Victorian science fiction. In this case, Victorian does not necessarily refer to the specific culture but a period of reference that was predominantly the industrialized 19th century.
This period bears lots of significance in history because it saw the birth and development of many key aspects of modern life, including mass production, extensive urbanization, advanced telecommunications, mechanized manufacturing, agriculture, and 'office life'.
Steampunk takes this further by imagining a more advanced 19th century with Victorian inspired items including mechanical computers and steam-powered machines.
Where Does Science Fiction Come In?
There is a thin line between Steampunk culture and Victorian culture, with many people using both to mean the same. The main distinction between the two is that although Steampunk began during the Victorian era, it is mainly influenced by science fiction.
This is often accomplished through the proto-steampunk stories of the 19th century that are often seen as parallel to today’s science fiction.
Steampunk today is mainly seen as a view of the future from the present. For people in the Victorian era, this meant imagining the future in a world that is devoid of modern features.
The Victorians imagined all kinds of mechanized tools including spacecrafts and submarines and although some of these came close to the mark, there were still distinct from what the future actually held.
For modern Steampunk enthusiasts exposed to modern science, practicing the culture involves reimagining a more advanced 19th century. To them, Steampunk is the perfect blend of science fiction and alternate history.
Where Does the Steam Come In?
Although steam engines were popular features of the Victorian era that saw the birth of Steampunk culture, Steampunk references more than the technology itself. Steam signifies an imagined world where steam technology is a dominant feature.
Steam technology is the main factor that revolutionized all aspects of life during the Victorian era. It made it possible for full scale industrialization to take place and replaced human and animal labor.
Working life changed dramatically due to mechanized manufacturing and farming. Society’s productivity increased as a result of mechanization and freed up an entire section of society to form the working class.
Steam technology brought about many changes in society, sciences and goods associated with the Victorian era. Steampunk culture is inspired by these changes, which it applies to the cultures that it influences.
Where Does the Punk Come In?
Ironically, the “punk” is not inspired by the punk sub-culture; it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the cyberpunk genre.
Punk culture is quite distinct from Steampunk in that it is mainly the product of various circumstances that were present after the Second World War. This fact makes punk culture quite distinct from Victorian or Steampunk culture.
What About Gears?
While gears are common features of Steampunk culture, they are not unique to the culture. Gears were common features of other cultures that began before the 19th century.
However, they remain one of the most recognizable features of Steampunk culture to date. Steampunk culture, especially fashion, incorporates pistons, gears, and flywheels among other objects of the Steam engine age.
On their own, gears are not distinctly Steampunk. However, when used in 19th century machinery, they become distinct icons of the genre.
What About Goggles?
Goggles are common features of Steampunk fashion and imagery. Contrary to the common misconception, goggles are not extremely fundamental to Steampunk fashion.
However, many people associate goggles with mechanized activities and science, which are common themes of Steampunk. Nevertheless, it is not a must for you to wear goggles to make your clothing ensemble Steampunk.
In fact, many people only wear goggles when it is useful. Like scarves, overalls and aprons, goggles can give life to your Steampunk ensemble, if used in the correct manner and with moderation. Otherwise, they could easily border on the ludicrous when used improperly.
What Makes Steampunk Appealing?
Steampunk is becoming increasingly popular today. Some people are drawn to it due to the appeal of the Victorian era while others like the culture’s unique approach to technology.
Modern Steampunk enthusiasts imagine the world today with 19th century technology. Other people are drawn to Steampunk because it allows them to sample a wide range of clothing and accessories from the steam engine era.
Final Thoughts On How Steampunk Started
One of the most significant aspects of Steampunk is the fact that it offers something for almost everyone, thanks to its diversity. Steampunk has also been popularized by the current neo-vintage movement in modern fashion, aesthetics and art.
However, these do not wholly account for the popularity of this genre. Steampunk draws people from all walks of life into a world where fashion is tailored to the individual, goods are durable, and machines are considered visually appealing.