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History of Steampunk

Steampunk as a concept came to prominence in America the mid to late 1980s as a sub genre of science fiction writing, focusing on an alternate reality where the world is still moving forward on the basis of steam power. It is typically, though not exclusively, centred on Victorian era Britain, enveloping all aspects of life including technology, fashion, culture, art and architecture, but with an underlying science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural twist. This setting, both in terms of location and time, presents a crossroads in history when the modern world of industry, science and technology was born and the world could travel in any number of directions.

It is sometimes thought of as having a similar fan base to Cyberpunk but this is not the case, and it may well owe its existence to a reaction against the themes of breakdown and radical social change through technology that this overly dystopian genre embodies. Although Steampunk does have an element of social deconstruction and rebellion, it has a far more positive overall outlook on the world in general, as well as an aesthetic focused on a specific historical time period and a strong do it yourself ethic. As a philosophy it embodies the Victorian’s optimism for the future, founded on the Industrial Revolution and Empire, alongside the somewhat purer ideals of creativity and self reliance. In turn it creates a striking contrast between the rampant commercialisation, mass production and waste in our world and a nostalgia and appreciation for the hand crafted artistry, quality and beauty of the vintage and antique of yesteryear.

In taking technology as an example, the Steampunk vision would include such fictional machines as those envisaged in the writings of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, alongside real technologies such as the computer, but developed as the Victorians may have envisioned them. Other examples of Steampunk focus on the path not taken, taking forward technologies that have fallen by the wayside or not reached their full potential in the 21st century, such as dirigibles, analog computers, and other mechanical forms. To look at this concept in reverse it would be like giving a Victorian era inventor, such as Charles Babbage, Alexander Graham Bell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Edison, or George Stephenson the briefest look at the technology of the future and then sending them back to their respective workshops and offices to design and build something from what they had glimpsed.

Pausing to look at the work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells it is worth noting that these authors described theories and technologies that were far in advance of their time:

Understanding Steampunk - Jules Verne HG Wells

The portraits above, from left to right, show Jules Verne (1828 to 1905) and H.G. Wells (1866 to 1946)

  • French author, Jules Verne, wrote about space, air and underwater craft decades before these modes of transport had taken a practical mechanical form. This startling point is underlined by the publication dates for each of his most notable works – Voyage au centre de la terre 1864 (Journey to the Center of the Earth); De la terre à la lune 1865 (From the Earth to the Moon); Vingt mille lieues sous les mers 1869 (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Even more remarkably, in 1863, Jules Verne had written a novel called Paris au XXe Siecle (Paris in the 20th Century) about a man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high speed trains, gas powered cars, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end. Verne’s publishers thought the novel’s pessimism would damage his growing popularity, and strongly suggested he put off publishing it. Verne put the manuscript in a safe, where it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989. It was finally published in 1994.
  • The first non-fiction bestseller by English writer H. G. Wells was Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought 1901. Originally serialised in a magazine it is considered by many to be his most futuristic work, as he anticipates what the world will be like in the year 2000. Wells tells of trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs, the decline of morality as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German militarism, and the existence of a European Union. And in an interesting contrast to Jules Verne, he does not expect to see successful flight before 1950, and declares that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea! His early novels, called scientific romances, invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. In 1933 Wells went on to predict in The Shape of Things to Come that the war he feared most would begin in January 1940. As we know the Second World War broke out in September 1939 just four months earlier than he predicted.

Steampunk Origins

The term Steampunk is said to have originated from science fiction writer Kevin Wayne Jeter (born 1950), who was was looking for a general descriptive term to describe works by Tim Powers (born 1952) – The Anubis Gates; James Blaylock (born 1950) – Homunculus; and his own book Morlock Night.

What Is Steampunk - Science Fiction Authors

The image above shows the front covers for books The Anubis Gates (1983), Homunculus (1986) and Morlock Night (1979).

Each of these novels was set in the 19th century and followed the general conventions of the speculative fiction of the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It was this commonality that Jeter was looking to capture in a single word or phrase. In a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of science fiction magazine Locus, Jeter wrote:

“Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night … it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in the Powers / Blaylock / Jeter fantasy triumvirate was writing in the gonzo-historical manner first. Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like steampunks, perhaps … “

The term was then later attributed to Jeter by Michael Berry writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987:

“Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their Cyberpunk novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed Steampunks, are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies.”

Having coined the term it is typically thought that Jeter’s novel Morlock Night established the genre, but looking back to the 1960s and 70s, earlier proto influences can be identified suggesting an evolution rather then a fixed point in time. Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium 1962; Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb 1967; and Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air 1971 all have Steampunk qualities. In turn, Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! 1973 describes an alternative British Empire set in 1973, with atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, and ornate submarines, all set off by Victorian dialogue. In 1992, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling brought the Steampunk genre real attention and popularity with The Difference Engine. This centred on an alternative Industrial Revolution where the historical figure Charles Babbage, mathematician and engineer, is able to realise his plans for a programmable, mechanical, analog computer. Babbage’s Difference Engine brings the Information Age into the Steam Age, along with the resulting struggle between the working classes who fear the new technology and the Upper Classes who embrace it.

Steampunk in Mainstream Media

Moving away from science fiction literature and into mainstream media the world of film and television has also played its part. An obvious example being Walt Disney’s Academy Award winning 1954 motion picture adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in particular the depiction of Captain Nemo by James Mason, and the visualisation and design of his submerging boat, the Nautilus. Another example would be the figure of the eccentric inventor Caratacus Potts, played by that master of accents Dick Van Dyke, from the 1968 musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, along with his many promising inventions including, of course, that car. From television the key example is the American series The Wild Wild West, running from 1965 to 1969. It starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as two secret service agents, James T West and Artemus Gordon respectively. This half science fiction half western production, followed the two agents as they travelled aboard a private train across the West fighting evil as they went, with Artemus designing the gadgets.

Definition Of Steampunk - Movies

The images above show a cinema poster for Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Warfield Productions Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, plus promotional material for The Wild West television show

In turn, in the last few years the influence of Steampunk can be seen in computer games such as the Bioshock series, graphic novels (building on the success of writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman), the Japanese anime film Steamboy from 2004, and the latest Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jnr in the lead role. Steampunk also brings vaudeville, musical theatre and the circus to music, with the likes of Battle Circus and Abney Park. In May 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited an outdoor interactive video installation linking London and New York City, all wrapped up in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope. In fact, in terms of mainstream interest Google Trends took note of the Steampunk movement in 2006 and has registered a steady gain in its popularity ever since.

Define Steampunk - Telectroscope

The image above shows the New York end of Paul St George’s Telectroscope installation.

With all the contraptions and gadgets detailed in novels and films, it was only natural that some people would want to start building these gadgets and bring Steampunk to life. Everything from computers, furniture, musical instruments, telephones, watches, and vehicles have been Steampunked. It is at this point that Steampunk becomes a design aesthetic built around creativity and imagination. There is no better place to view some of these makes than at the Steampunk Workshop, but by way of a small example here is a borrowed image from the site, depicting a LCD computer monitor. Home decor allowing, which screen would you rather be sat in front of you right now?

Steampunk Defined - PC Monitor Project

The image above shows two views of a fully functional Steampunked computer monitor

Steampunk Jewellery & Components

This design aesthetic, and do it yourself ethic, most easily carries over into personal style with both clothing and props being made in a Steampunk style, both by the individual and commercially, for example at the Steampunk Emporium. Clothes are largely Victorian, alongside American Western, but with the addition of technology hinting at a more adventurous life than a typical Victorian may have actually enjoyed! And with this clothing comes a need for jewellery and the components necessary to make Steampunk jewellery. By way of an introduction, here are four distinct Steampunk jewellery items.
How To Make Steampunk Jewelry

The images above show a Fondobjects Spanish Pill Box ring; an Antige Steampunk Jewelry Vintage Watch Topaz earrings; a Ghostlove New Era brooch; and lastly a Catherinette Rings Black Rose Cameo necklace.

To see further examples that you can make yourself, you could do no worse than purchase a copy of Jean Campbell’s Steampunk Style Jewelry as it captures the essence of Steampunk across 30 different projects and is full of photographs, both to supplement the step by step instructions and to display the finished article. Another book released more recently is Steampunk Emporium by English jewellery artist Jema Hewitt which comes in hardback and Kindle versions! Jema designs and creates unique objects d’art incorporating vintage and found objects with polymer clay, filigree, and beads. Both books go a long way towards answering the question – just what is Steampunk jewellery?

Steampunk jewellery components are based on a basic colour palette of brass, bronze, copper and iron along with dark silvers such as gunmetal, brushed aluminium and titanium. High sheen gold and silver are rarely used as they do not reflect the antique feel and industrial solidity that Steampunk embodies. That said there are several do it yourself methods for darkening these metals.

This metal foundation is often then softened by blending in the romantic femininity of the Victorian age, so alongside the hardness of the metal you will often find coloured beads integrated into the designs. With amber, cranberry, ivory, olive and pastels reflecting the traditional colours used during the Victorian period. Alongside the beads antiqued paper, filigree, glass, lace, leather, and pearls, in varied tones and shades, can be used.

Other elements that are core to this form of jewellery are motifs, usually though not exclusively, reflecting age, industry and time. The most popular steampunk motif is the gear, which is obviously symbolic of industry. Watches of all types, including wrist and pocket watches, are used to reflect time and the idea of clockwork. Old-fashioned antique skeleton keys are also popular, as are other found objects such as belt buckles, chain, charms and milagros, hinges, metal beads, military medals, monocles, pill box cases, stampings, thread cutters, and old metal buttons. Again industrial hardness is often softened by the inclusion of Victorian style cameos, filigree work, lockets, as well as embellishments depicting blossoms, flowers, petals and leaves, along with other naturalistic components such as animals, birds and insects. There are also some less obvious motifs that may not be as readily connected with either industry or the Victorian era. For instance, the fashion for cephalopods, namely cuttlefish, octopuses and squids, which is based on their links with pulp fiction and also the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne.

What Is Steampunk Jewelry

The montage above shows a range of largely vintage BigBeadLittleBead beads, embellishments, findings, and other components that might one day find themselves alongside a found object in a piece of Steampunk jewellery. Click the image to see our full selection.

In addition to the actual jewellery make, many resulting pieces also come packaged with a story, firmly placing the object in the wider Steampunk world. This may be in the form of a simple leaflet, or something more elaborate such as a wooden presentation box with an engraved brass plate, concept drawings, instructions for use, and a ‘history’ for the object.

Steampunk Resources & Further Reading

This article was only ever intended as an outsiders view – looking through a small window into the world of Steampunk. However, if it has stirred your curiosity then have a look below for some hard copy and on-line resources written and undated by genuine Steampunkers. These will undoubtedly lead you to other areas within this fascinating genre!

Steampunk Books:

The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer details the principles and values of the Steampunk subculture, whilst tracing its roots through the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, on to its most recent expression in films and other media. It its own words it is “the definitive illustrated guide to the world of imaginary airships, corsets and goggles, mad scientists, and strange literature!”

Jean Campbell’s book Steampunk Style Jewelry describes exactly what Steampunk style is all about from a number of different individual perspectives. It provides step by step instructions for 30 individual jewellery projects provided by well known figures from the world of Steampunk. In addition, sidebars throughout the book provide information about Steampunk related books, films, fashion, animations, bands, and sculpture. The book is full of beautifully shot imagery to highlight the ornate intricacy of the designs as well as detailing the individual Steampunk components needed.

How To Make Steampunk Jewellery

The images above show the covers of the Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and Steampunk Style Jewelry by Jean Campbell.

Steampunk Websites:

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