History

shareShare on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

As told by Thomas Willeford’s book: Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos.

“I’ve seen much debate online about what is and isn’t real Steampunk. My least favorite is this one: “Steampunk is not real, so there are no rules and you can do anything you like and call it Steampunk.” Sweeping definitions like this are not really helpful to the “goggle-curious.” I personally have no fear of applying a bit of definition to help things along, so when asked in a recent interview to define Steampunk, I bravely said, “I’ll write something up and have it to you next week.” So here’s what I’ve come up with….

According to that revered tome, the Oxford English Dictionary, Steampunk is defined as “a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, rather than advanced technology.” And although the Oxford definition might be correct to a certain degree, I find it to be rather inadequate. Steampunk has graduated from a simple science fiction genre into a growing subculture. Its style is based on the clash of history and anachronism and infused with the demands and constraints of antiquated technology. People are developing entire wardrobes and lifestyles based on where they park their airship. And although Steampunk shares some elements with the gothic subculture at the fundamental level, such as their shared fascination with the strange and unusual, their foundation in literary works of the Victorian era, and their adoption of antiquated fashions of the late 19th century (though not exclusively, of course), Steampunk is still much more than that. Its literary roots make it a more character-driven world.

The Steampunk aesthetic is not only about books, movies, and television, however. Fashion, music, and decor are all rapidly being integrated into this subculture. In mid-2006, with its album Lost Horizons, the band Abney Park became the first all-Steampunk band (as opposed to a band that occasionally plays goggle-friendly music) . I am going to push the boat out here and risk taking a shot across the bow from the S.P.P.D. (SteamPunk Police Department). The first piece of media to come about that I would classify as truly Steampunk is the ’60s television show Wild Wild West (pilot episode, 1965). There, I said it. I looked and nothing else really fit the bill. Yes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came out in 1954, but it was a movie based on a novel published in 1869. Wild Wild West had all my prerequisites for good honest Steampunk, without any stretching of the definition whatsoever.

Look at our technology. Remember when radios and televisions were actually pieces of furniture encased in wooden cabinetry? They were pieces of art. Modern technology has none of that. The industrial revolution made more things available for the common person, which is great, but all of them were made the same, which is boring. Everything became so much about making money, and bland is now the common denominator. The first commercially available computers, for example, came in one color: putty. Attempts to change this on the corporate level have been limp, at best (“Now, in black!”). We have the technology, but where’s the grace? Why aren’t wood-grain outer casings available for our laptops? People would buy that. People on the street who have never even heard of Steampunk see my laptop bag and desperately ask me where they can buy one. When I tell them I made it, they offer to buy it right there. I would love to sell it to them, but then what would I use to hold my laptop? The popularity of retro-styled cars is one indicator that people are hungry for more accessible beauty in their everyday lives. Steampunk looks to the past, where ornamentation was relished and encouraged, and it applies that desire for beauty and functionality to our modern lives. The Steampunk ethos and aesthetic makes it possible to apply modern technology with these old designs, while still being cost-effective.”