What is Steampunk?

This is our definition of ‘steampunk’: ‘steampunk’ refers to a fusion of steam-era aesthetics and/or principles with futuristic ideas about human existence in the space-time continuum, informed by the possibilities offered by ongoing scientific endeavour when joined to the imagination. Steampunk is brought to life by the power of dreamers with nostalgic notions, who are supported by a deep knowledge of past eras, deftly knitting together science-inspired visions of the future.

Image Credit: Thomas Veyrat

Let’s deconstruct it.

JW Keter by Photo by Gemnerd 2011

Steampunk is a neologism which (arguably) was coined in the 1980’s. It apparently arose from the mind of science fiction author KW Jeter who was searching for an accurate description of his works.

But this is an origin story and if you’re interested, you can read about it here[1]. It still does not flesh out the meaning of ‘steampunk’ as it exists now after the pummeling we culture vultures give it. Thanks to us makers and appreciators and cosplayers and consumers, ‘steampunk’ is now a richly contested term. Let’s contest it a little more!

Image Credit: Shanna Jones Photography Yatzer Truth Coffee Shop Cape Town. Used under Creative Commons 4.0

The term ‘steampunk’ is largely used as an adjective.

Steampunk is used to describe speculative worlds, environments, communities and the attributes of people and things that exist within these. Those who adopt steampunk inspired identities often adopt affectations from their favourite eras: manners, mannerisms, speech patterns and communication styles. It adds to the flavor and experience. In delightful ways, it cross-fertilises the past with the digital age.

To be classified as ‘steampunk’, primary aesthetic inspiration is drawn from the Edwardian era (1901 – 1915), Victorian era (1837 – 1901) and/or Georgian era (1790 – 1831). At times, the aesthetic elements are buttressed by other elements relating to these eras. These include – but are not limited to – era-inspired mechanical functionality, a sense that time moved at a slower pace yet coincided with a burgeoning taste for faster-than-ever-before land-based travel with all its trappings. 

‘A Private View at the Royal Academy’ by William Powell Frith

Let’s look a little closer at why ‘steam’ was chosen as the first constituent component of the neologism ‘steampunk’. Steam power in and of itself started being harnessed for use as far back as the 1st century AD. It took many iterations and patents by various people over hundreds of years for steam to evolve as a means of propulsion on an industrial scale and to see steam technologies adopted and adapted to service the mass market. You can read more about the steam power timeline here[2].

Steam power was gearing up to full strength during the Georgian era. By the Victorian era, we see throngs of people travel on steam trains. Imagine how unbelievable it was for people who had largely travelled by horse and buggy up until that time – it took days punctuated by overnight stops at inns to travel 50 kilometres. These people were then able to travel that same distance by steam train in a single day!

Think about factory workers using machinery that, thanks to the efficiency of steam power, saw the great leap forward made by the Industrial Revolution in the 1700-1800’s give birth to the first wave of mass production of consumer goods.
Image Credit: Victorian Machine Shop by Les Chatfield, Flickr. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

And yet, the mechanisation of labour heralded the decline in what was once skilled labouring (e.g. blacksmithing, millwork) and increased rates of impoverishment amongst the working classes. And as the working classes sought a new life, pioneers were born as they set out to make a new life across the seas and on newly colonised lands. Hence, the ‘Wild West’ aesthetic often infiltrates the steampunk genre. Let’s leave aside the impact of colonisation on first peoples around the planet – just briefly, we shall return to it by the close of this rather long definition.

By steam, those Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians were propelled into the future at a rate hithertofore unimaginable. They were time travelers in their own lives.

Now let’s look at why ‘punk’ is the second part of the word equation. Equally importantly, ‘steampunk’ imaginings are cleverly infused with disruptive, unconventional, bizarre and anti-establishment influences. A handy sobriquet for this cluster of ideas is ‘punk’. Of course, the obvious inspiration was the 1970’s period during which the punk sub-culture arose. Punk sub-culture holds a place in the popular imagination as being a community of loosely associated (or disassociated, disaffected) individuals who embraced many rebellious, shocking and authority-defying ideas. Embedded in the idea of being a punk was the responsibility to offer a serial challenge to societal norms through alternative thought and political systems such as anarchy. Why? Thatcherism and Reagonomics were taking hold across the developed world and a new era of disenfranchised young working class people were created.

Punks questioned handed down truths of the past. They looked for a different future aimed at liberating them from their concerns. Importantly, key figures in the punk movement voiced their concerns through many artistic channels such as music, art and design. If you want to read about how punk was defined by 25 key punk era influencers, you can read about it here[3].

So what of the modern steampunk-inspired individual and the many and varied accoutrements that comprise a steampunk lifestyle? Why do we say there is a ‘steampunk way of life’?

Jules Verne, circa 1878 – photograph restored by Félix Nadar

Steampunk is about valuing the era inspired elements and principles of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras. Its heroes-at-arms are novelists (eg. HG Wells, Jules Verne) and scientists (eg. Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison). Forward thinking creative and business icons who came of age in the 1970’s punk era left an indelible impression on the steampunk imagination (e.g. David Bowie, Vivienne Westwood) by virtue of their style and unconventional thinking which has led to enduring creations. These collectively have become a monument to the possibilities inherent in questioning and critiquing the status quo.

Nikola Tesla sits in front of a spiral coil from a high voltage transformer at his Houston St, New York laboratory in 1896
Image Credit: Portrait of Vivienne Westwood by Biagio Black. Used under Creative Commons 1.0.

And because we are living in this day and age where science continues to make great leaps forward toward which we eagerly hurtle in search of preserving our planet, our inspirational figures include technological innovators (e.g. Elon Musk and Steve Jobs) and environmentalists (eg. David Suzuki, Rachel Carson). Now is the time where the long ignored voices of first peoples around the globe start assuming their rightful place as millennia of land management protocols and cultural knowledge systems are finally recognised and start informing our ecological survival plan, often hand in hand with new technologies. Steampunk has the capacity, as it evolves, to offer a respectful place of equality within it to First Peoples and the precious offerings they have guarded down the years so as to preserve them for posterity.

Image Credit: Elon Musk at the Heisenberg Media Summit, 2013 by Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.
Image Credit: Rachel Carson, 1940 Fish and Wildlife Service employee photo. 

The inspiration drawn from the past is as much about valuing the eras themselves as it is about valuing our ability to question, imagine and create new futures utilising existing, new and emergent technologies and ideas. The steampunk life is disruptive, it is fulsome, it embraces ideas from clever people of conscience across cultures; it races toward the future whilst paying homage to the time periods which birthed it. The steampunk way of life picks up where these eras purportedly ended, uses the latent drives within them which are still evident in era-specific artefacts and ideas, to invigorate new ideas and newly acquired scientific and long buried cultural knowledge about our possible future.

It is a future where a body-energy harnessing corset may charge your iPhone.

X-rays of women in corsets

It is a future where goggles using VR lenses used at a festival such as Glimmerdark could turn a film installation into an immersive travel experience into the past – Star Trek may have popularised the holodeck concept, but we are on the cusp of creating them.

Science meets imagination and is married to possibility in the steampunk way of life. It has the potential to create dystopias but it also has the potential to create a better world which acknowledges and celebrates the past, using it to invent our best selves and a sustainable environment to support the next iteration of the planet.