The History of Steampunk

The genre of steampunk — in books, in movies, and in cosplay — has started to gain more popularity and recognition these days. But its history as a subculture in artistic circles goes back much farther than many people realize and is made up of more than just beautiful Steampunk costumes or a corset.


A Definition

Steampunk can be defined as the blending of current or even imagined future technology — aircraft; machine guns; long-distance communication — with the Victorian era, or roughly the 1800s. Imagine a motorcycle powered by a steam engine and you’ve got the makings of a steampunk situation.

The “punk” in steampunk comes from the idea of going against the established set of rules in society, and so steampunk characters in books and movies can often be seen battling against the norms: inventing strange new things instead of taking over the traditional family business; speaking their minds (especially the female characters) instead of accepting what they’re told. And in a society as full of strict rules as the Victorian age, it was easy to go around breaking them all the time.

Bookish Beginnings

The 1800s were a time of rapid scientific changes — electricity came into homes for the first time, and machines were being invented that would revolutionize the way common products were made and the ways in which people lived their lives. The railways were also rapidly taking over the country of England and filling the pastoral countrysides and newly bustling cities with clouds of steam from their coal-burning engines.



All these changes happening at the same time and at such a quick pace inspired the imaginations of the Victorian people, and genre of science fiction, well, picked up steam.

Jules Verne, author of such Victorian Science Fiction classics as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, is often regarded as being the father of what we consider Steampunk today, although the term itself wasn’t coined until 1979. His novels feature technology that was unimaginable at the time, and indeed even still are, all set amid the Victorian age of which he was a part.

Movie Magic

When film making entered the scene, some of the earliest movies made were adaptations of these Steampunk novels — 20,000 Leagues was adapted for the screen in 1916, and Mysterious Island, another Verne novel, in 1929.

For some time, however,  the genre slipped into obscurity as just another oddity of the past. It wasn’t until after the Second World War, when Science Fiction entered its golden age and the space race brought visions of all sorts of amazing new technology into the public mind, that Steampunk found its footing again.

Some of the most notable Steampunk novels of the present century were written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and indeed this is when the modern subgenre of Steampunk is said to have officially begun. When the author K. W. Jeter wrote to Locus magazine with a copy of his novel Morlock Night and suggested that authors such as himself be given a new title, “steam-punks perhaps,” the phrase was born.

Today the genre has taken on a life of its own, with new books coming out every month and movies like Wild Wild West (1999), Van Helsing (2004), and The Golden Compass (2007) making it popular again amongst the masses.

Making it fashionable

Dressing up Steampunk has become popular, as well. Because of its roots in Victoriana, the culture of Steampunk today is marked by its extraordinary fashions, with corsets and skirts and boots and jewelry that were a staple of that historical time period while also being adorned with the brass, copper, and leather trimmings that echo the scifi machinery and futuristic inventions that make Steampunk what it is.

A lovely steampunk corset
A lovely steampunk corset

At Cons around the country it’s inevitable to spot top hats adorned with motoring goggles and elegant ladies wearing mechanical bustles over their silk and lace corsets. It is, indeed, a fine time to be a lover of Steampunk, a genre that has deep roots and that shows every sign of continuing on for a long time to come.