What is steampunk?

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates retrofuturistic technologies and aesthetic designs inspired by the 19th century industrial machinery which was powered by steam. The term steampunk was coined by science fiction author K.W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for the works of Tim Powers, James Blaylock and himself, all of which took place in the 19th century Victorian era setting.

The features of Steampunk most recognizably include chronologically inconsistent technologies leading to retro yet futuristic inventions. These inventions are based on how people in the 19th century might have envisioned these technologies. The roots of steampunk originate from this era’s perspective of fashion, culture, architectural style and art. 

Some earliest examples of steampunk include presentation of technologies such as steam cannons, lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, digital mechanical computers etc. in an alternative speculative history style. Over time, steampunk has evolved from its literary meaning and has found its way into artistic styles, clothing fashions, entertainment industry, music and other sub-cultures.

Most of the work related to steampunk originated from ideas of steampunk and Victorian era fiction. Now, however, the world of steampunk includes a broader range of settings like fantasy worlds, American west and even post-apocalyptic worlds. This incorporation of additional elements from the genres of fantasy and different fictional historical settings makes it a versatile and hybrid genre. 

Steampunk works are broadly based on having an industrial and vintage appearance. Therefore most of the material used in creating this form of art involves metal parts and wood. The metal parts include pieces of iron, brass, copper or steel, gears and cogs. The pieces of metal can be in the form of sheets, pipes, metal fittings, wires, screws and many more. Other materials used include glass, antique light bulbs, leather etc..

The tools required to design a piece of steampunk art or craft vary from artist to artist. However most tinkerers consider forethought and drafting a design as an important tool in the creation process. The most common hardware tools required in the creation process include band and table saws, drills, screwdrivers, hammers, wire cutters, glue, soldering irons etc..   

Steampunk art and inventions are inspired by the Victorian era and the color schemes are based on the machines, fashion and inventions of this era. The most common color associated with steampunk is brown. It need not be an exact shade of brown but rather having a shade of rusted metal or a shade of leather. The colors seen in the sepia-like tones of photographs taken of the 19th century era are also associated with this retro yet futuristic genre. The shades of brown are usually combined with a reddish yellow palette which hints at the presence of brass. The brown and reddish yellow colors provide a strong visual appearance of a steampunk aesthetic. The colors blue and green are hardly ever associated with this genre. 

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History of Steampunk

The word Steampunk did not come into existence until the late 1980’s and was initially used to describe a genre of speculative fiction where technological advancements were powered by steam rather than electricity. This idea, however, has been around since the 19th century. It was called by some as Neo-Victorian futurism. Initial science fiction works were inspired by the 19th century Victorian era. Many significant works of Steampunk art and fiction were created even before the genre had a proper name. Authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are often considered the forefathers of this genre. Modern conceptions of Steampunk by authors such as Tim Powers, James Blaylock were heavily inspired by the ideas of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. 

Steampunk History

Once regarded as a popular genre of science fiction, this genre has grown beyond its literary boundaries. Early audiences of this genre mostly included avid readers of science fiction, graphic novels and  comics. Somewhere in the mid 2000s the genre developed its own sub-genres and sub-cultures.

This gave rise to Steampunk bands, conventions and theme parks attracting thousands of people from across the world to participate in events and show off their costumes and designs. Over time the niche of the genre has evolved from science fiction stories to a more materialistic culture which involves cosplay, creating steampunk personas, making wall art etc. Creating their own style of 19th century Victorian era jewelry, accoutrements and gadgets is also a general practice among steampunk enthusiasts. This Victorian style is also used by many to decorate and design the aesthetics of an entire room or household.

History of Steampunk

Steampunk vs Cyberpunk and Dieselpunk

steampunk vs cyberpunkBoth Cyberpunk and Steampunk are considered sub genres of the science fiction genre. They both use similar futuristic elements such as technology and advances in technology as their main theme. However they are very much different in the type of technology that are used in them.

 

Cyberpunk style is usually set in a dystopian future which is dominated by computer technology. It focuses on high tech technology like cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Steampunk on the other hand  is usually set in the Victorian era and is inspired by the industrial and technological innovations of that age. It focuses on technology which is powered by steam and reimagines a future with mechanical machines and steam as the main source of power. Steampunk fashion is also based on the Victorian era whereas cyberpunk fashion usually has a gritty look and a futuristic makeover. Cyberpunk often features a dark base of colors on items such as trench coats, jeans and sometimes even goggles. The Matrix trilogy is a good example of the cyberpunk genre and the aesthetics involved in it. Read more about the differences between the genres in this article.

Dieselpunk is another sub genre of science fiction. Its aesthetics and timeline are based during the interwar period through to the end of World War II and into the 1950s. Dieselpunk works draw heavy influences from pulp magazines, films, art and decorations of this era. Dieselpunk uses diesel powered machinery in combination with retro futuristic technology. Dieselpunk and steampunk are somewhat similar subgenres of science fiction with one often getting confused for the other. Subtle differences can be found if we look closely at the two genres. Most importantly, both are set in different timelines. Steampunk draws inspiration from the 19th century Victorian timeline and Dieselpunk draws inspiration from the interwar and post war 1950s timeline. Dieselpunk art has a considerably darker color palette when compared to steampunk. Black, grey, military green, dark camouflage are some of the common colors associated with this genre. Dieselpunk fashion also draws inspiration from this era and includes items like waistcoats, hosiery, overalls, gas masks, bomber jackets etc.. Captain America The First Avenger, Mad Max: Fury Road are examples of movies with dieselpunk elements. 

steampunk vs dieselpunk

Steampunk Art

Steampunk art
Steampunk Painting

Some of the first visualizations of Steampunk designs came from Walt Disney’s Film 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and George Pal’s Film The Time Machine. The early artists drew heavy influence in designing their inventions and taking visual inspiration from these works.

Steampunk art can be  an artist’s take on an existing technology and remaking it with old industrial, Victorian or American wild west aesthetics. An example could be a computer keyboard with its keys replaced with that of a typewriter. Other artists may design their own sculptures by using materials which were widely used in the Victorian era. An example could be a table lamp designed using rusted metal pipes, metal parts and a vintage bulb. These sculptures can be built from scratch but  require a lot of legwork such as visiting pawn shops and dumping yards and collecting the material from there. Now, however, people are able to sell and purchase parts, products and sculptures directly from stores or online. Over the years this art form has continued to spread into a wider variety of sub genres of art. These include steampunk wall arts, art drawings, sculptures, tattoos and even digital wallpapers.

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Steampunk Fashion

Retrofuturistic Steampunk Costume
Retrofuturistic Steampunk Costume

Steampunk fashion has become widely known during the late 20th century. The first steampunk convention took place in 2006. Here, steampunk enthusiasts came together and displayed their take on the fashion sense inspired by the genre. A Steampunk costume is a mixture of fashion trends from different historical eras. The aesthetics of Steampunk fashion is set in the 19th century Victorian era and is designed keeping a post apocalyptic future in mind. Victorian era goggles with slight modifications, top hats, waistcoats, corsets, leather pants etc. are some of the most common aspects of a Steampunk costume.

Other aspects include hairstyling, makeup, accessories (watches, compasses) and jewelry (necklaces, chains). Since its inception the aesthetic associated with this genre has remained constant. There have been subtle changes whenever there has been added literature in the mix such as the American west setting or other technological advancements. A more modern take on steampunk fashion includes t-shirts with steampunk designs and a pair of jeans accessorized with a belt and holsters. Most of the early costumes and designs were traditionally handmade and customized. However, as the steampunk movement grows many entrepreneurs and companies have started to mass produce clothing which can be purchased online and in stores. 

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Steampunk Media and Entertainment

Steampunk is one of the most popular genres of science fiction. Over the years it has gained a lot of popularity in movies, television and animation. Some of the earliest movies which contained elements of steampunk include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth etc. When discussing movies, it is also important to discuss the different settings in which the events may take place. Different settings inspire and accommodate subtle changes in the aesthetic of Steampunk. One of the settings is the 19th century Victorian era which inspired movies like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen(2003), Sherlock Holmes(2010) etc. Another setting is the American West with television shows and films such as Wild Wild West under its belt.

Steampunk movie Steamboy

This genre also gained popularity in the animation world with works inspired by the Japanese manga production from the 1940s. Steamboy (2004) and Fullmetal Alchemist(2001) are some of the most popular animations related to the genre and utilizes a fantasy/alternative world setting. 

movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Steampunk has also inspired a lot of bands and musicians. Steampunk music draws influences from various sounds and genres. These include gothic, industrial, synth pop with subtle hints of orchestral, ragtime, Indian, gypsy, folk etc. It is widely accepted that steampunk as a musical genre is not defined by the sounds but rather by the stage show performances by bands and their aesthetics. Most bands mod their equipment to imitate their Victorian era counterparts and dress themselves in exotic costumes. Abney Park, Thomas Dolby are some of the earliest artists involved with this this form of music. Professor Elemental and Steam Powered Giraffe are also known to use steampunk aesthetics in their several music videos. 

Steampunk Video Games

A  wide variety of video games have used steampunk aesthetics. Victorian clothing, brass designs, steam powered machinery and industries and the awesome airships are common staples when it comes to video games. The very first video games of this kind can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when games such as Myst and Final Fantasy series were taking shape. These video games also cover a wide range of settings which include alternative history, fantasy and post apocalyptic. BioShock: Infinite and Dishonored are some of the most popular steampunk genre video games. Minecraft(2011) also includes an exclusive steampunk themed texture pack.

Steampunk Style Minecraft city
Steampunk Style Minecraft city

Steampunk Decor

Steampunk decor is considered to be a combination of machinery and elegance. This style of decoration derives inspiration from the industrial revolution era and gothic Victorian fashion which makes it a versatile and interesting subject for steampunk enthusiasts. Most of the material used in steampunk decoration involves metal parts and wood. Adding old maps, compasses, vintage terrestrial globes to the mix is a good way to start with steampunk decor. These decorations consist of different items such as wall art, sculptures, antique bulbs. Leather items, antique items, antique furniture are also associated with this genre. Brown and its different shades, brass, reddish yellow, hints of black are some of the colors which provide a strong visual steampunk aesthetic.   

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retrofuturistic Table lamp
Steampunk Style table lamps
Steampunk décor Wall clock
Steampunk décor Wall clock
Victorian bookshelf
Victorian bookshelf