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|
|JW Keter by Photo by Gemnerd 2011|
But this is an origin story and if you’re interested, you can read about it here. 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|
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|
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.|
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.
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|
|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.|
|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.|
It is a future where a body-energy harnessing corset may charge your iPhone.
|X-rays of women in corsets|
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.