An Educated Guess

Musings on life in general

Steampunk’s Dirty Little Secret

Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction, right? Or at the very least, it draws upon the science fiction written during that era as its inspiration.

Right?

Yeah, I know, when someone asks something like that at the beginning of an article, it’s always a trick question.

Steampunk is about brass and leather and whatnot, but above all else, it’s about steam power. After all, steam is in the name, isn’t it? Everyone knows that steam power was used during the Victorian era, and that the 19th century was when the steam engine achieved massive commercial and popular success even if it had first been invented thousands of years before.

We all take for granted the ‘steam’ in ‘Steampunk’ because we’re looking backwards in time. We already know what the Victorian era was like, and we know how things turned out. We know that electricity wasn’t really used commercially until the 20th century. So clearly all of the science fiction of the Victorian era used steam power.

Let’s take a look at some of the so-called inspirations for Steampunk and see what we find, shall we?

The very first example of modern science fiction was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This is often cited as being an inspiration for Steampunk. And yet… There’s no steam. None. The ‘futuristic’ technology of the book is electricity (specifically galvanism), not steam. Hold on to your butts, because you’re about to start seeing a trend.

Here are some other books that feature zero or almost zero steam power:

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • From the Earth to the Moon
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • Robur the Conquerer/Master of the World
  • The Time Machine
  • The Invisible Man
  • War in the Air
  • The War of the Worlds
  • When the Sleeper Wakes
  • The Lost World


Where, then, is all of the steam power in the things that Steampunk is based on? Well, nowhere. Only one piece of Victorian Science Fiction featuring steam springs to mind, and that’s Jules Verne’s The Steam House, which features a steam-powered elephant that pulls a house around. That’s it. Seriously.

Any student of history can tell you that research and development into using electricity had been underway for hundreds of years by the time the Victorian era came around, and that in the latter half of the 19th century, electricity helped drive the second Industrial Revolution. In other words, the end of the Victorian era was all about electricity, not steam.

If anyone didn’t buy my earlier argument that Steampunk isn’t really about the Victorian era, I should hope that you do now.

That said, I should clarify that when I said that the steam power of Steampunk came from nowhere, what I meant is that it didn’t come from the 19th century. It’s something that we’ve imposed upon them from our time, because electricity is too much a part of our lives today. Machinery powered by electricity is all around us, and Steampunk just wouldn’t be any fun without steam. Additionally, we picture the Victorian era a certain way based on its portrayal in films, and we’re playing with what we think the Victorian era was like, not what it was actually like.

That’s why it’s important to realize that Steampunk is based more on the films of the 50’s and 60’s that were, in turn, based on the books of the Victorian era, rather than on those books themselves. The films would occasionally have steam-powered machinery in the background, or in a lab, or whathaveyou, but those things never appeared in the original books that they were based on. As a result, the idea of steam-based technology appearing in those books became reified as time passed and more and more people simply saw the movies (or just heard a friend talk about them) instead of reading the books. Even in the movies, steam power appears infrequently, and yet the “Victorian Science Fiction = steam power” paradigm has thoroughly ingrained itself into our cultural zeitgeist, and thus into Steampunk.

That’s why I cite “The Wild Wild West” television show as the beginning of Steampunk, because it was the first example of science fiction that actually used steam power for some of its ridiculous gadgets rather than electricity or some other futuristic power source.

The fact that Steampunk is based on a cultural misconception, my friends, is our dirty little secret.

  • 14 April 2012
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