Steampunk – What is it?

An Ever-Changing Definition

Every month, we ask ourselves, “What is Steampunk?”, and we think about it again.

Here’s a practical answer you can use:

Steampunk is a creative focus, based re-imagining the 19th century, which you can use for any form of inventiveness.

It could be music, art, dress, writing, games – and those are just beginning points.

Steampunk uses a near past, a past close enough that we can find its clothing in thrift stores, but far enough that it’s clearly a different world. That’s a pretty unique place. Dieselpunk is wonderful, but different; it’s hard for the 1940s not to be overwhelmed by the Third Reach. Come closer in time, and we’re still actually dealing with the hippie movement, with the remnants of the greed and challenges of the Disco Area; and while the 80s were marvelously weird, they’re well within the living memory of hundreds of millions of people. It’s hard to feel like you have free creative reign with a time which is, in a sense, directly visible in our own world.

Go back to the 18th century or before, and you’re going too far to have Steampunk’s critical proximity. Without mass production, industrialization, organized science, and, hell, decent dentistry, you have a wholly altered world. While I don’t like putting “science” and “magic” into two categories which are automatically opposed to each other (but thoughts on the scientific study of magic, while absolutely relevant to the 19th century, are for another day) – I’d like to put forth a theory:

In 1786, J.H. Müller proposed a difference engine, but could not get it funded. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine was proposed in 1822, and received its first funding in 1823.

A Steampunk clockwork heart concept with a heart shape made of cogs and gears

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the moment Steampunk started – a world which had the concept of modern computers and was ready to make them, but was more than a century away from the electrical knowledge needed to begin the Information Age. You had a world which was beginning to have very deep knowledge, but wherein it was still widely believed to be possible that knowledge was finite, and the world was ultimately something which could be understood. You just had to explore hard enough, search bravely enough, create innovatively enough – and you might figure it out.

Further Thoughts

Like we said before, we think about the question of “What is Steampunk?” very frequently and have written a fair amount on the subject.  Might we recommend some further reading?

How To Be A Steampunk

How To Be A Steampunk

I will, as I often do let you in on the secret: while I know lots of people who worried they “wouldn’t get Steampunk right” or “wouldn’t be Steampunk enough”, the truth is, if you appreciate or do Steampunk things, you are a...

read more
Is Steampunk a literary genre?

Is Steampunk a literary genre?

When you ask “What is Steampunk?”, there are still a number of people who give the answer that it’s a literary genre.  (A disproportionate number of those people are Steampunk authors; indeed, the classic, deeply flawed statement “Steampunk is...

read more
What is Steampunk? – Part I

What is Steampunk? – Part I

I get asked “What is Steampunk?” just about every day. Rather than just laying down our own opinions as supposed Experts, I like bringing the question to our friends and attendees. Here’s what some of them said, last time we asked. “Fun, being...

read more
Where did The Steampunk World’s Fair come from?

Where did The Steampunk World’s Fair come from?

Before The Steampunk World’s Fair was Jeff Mach’s Wicked Winter Renaissance Faire – which has only just now returned. A large part of our identity as a rollicking Festival – rather than a convention – comes from that background. We...

read more
Steampunk For World Domination: An Introduction

Steampunk For World Domination: An Introduction

STEAMPUNK FOR WORLD DOMINATION! a book by Jeff Mach Introduction: Exactly what the hell are we creating here, anyway? I’m going to let you in on a huge secret here: Steampunk is imaginary. But just because it’s imaginary doesn’t mean that it’s...

read more
What is Steampunk?

What is Steampunk?

Every month, we ask, “What is Steampunk?”, and we think about it again. Here’s a practical answer you can use: Steampunk is a creative focus, based re-imagining the 19th century, which you can use for any form of inventiveness.  It could be music,...

read more