A giant, mechanical, steam-powered tarantula dwarfs the heroes in the film Wild, Wild West.

(11/08) Growing up I was always a big fan of Jules Verne. The 19th century author with his stories of races around the world, submarines at the bottom of the sea, and expeditions to the center of the earth always captured my imagination. Most of Verne's tales, however, were written over a century before I was born. Some of the things I found compelling about them wasn't just the action of the stories, but the way the author envisioned what would be the inventions of the 20th century through the eyes of a 19th century man: Submarines with enormous bay windows to view the ocean life of the sea, rockets to the moon launched from giant cannons and Airships for exploring the dense rain forests of Africa from the sky.

What's In a Name?

Apparently I wasn't the only one who has found this type of "retro-science fiction" fascinating. A whole subgenre has grown up around it and been given the label "steampunk." The term was first coined by writer Kevin Wayne Jeter in 1987 as a way of describing books written by himself and several other authors. The logic behind the first part of the name "steam" is obvious. Though first commercial steam engines appeared for mining operations in the 18th century, it wasn't until the 1800's that high-pressure, high power steam engines became commercially available. Slowly, as that century unfolded, steam power replaced wind, human and animal power in factories, aboard ships and in forms of land transportation. The 19th century was the age of steam.

The second portion of the name "punk," however, is a bit more obscure. When Jeter coined the name he was considered to be a "cyberpunk" writer. Cyberpunk, of course, is a subgenre of science fiction involving computers coupled with dark, rebellious behavior. Jeter replaced "cyber" with "steam" and left the "punk" in place as a tongue-in cheek reference to how he had been labeled. Though Jeter's work always seemed to have dark themes to it, the term "steampunk" has now expanded to include almost any work that involves retro-technology from the 19th or previous century.

The marvelous steam-powered centipede from Crabfu Steamworks.

The term "steampunk" has also been associated with alternate versions of history. Perhaps the best example of this is The Difference Engine, a novel written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In real history, British scientist Charles Babbage attempted to build a mechanical computer, but couldn't make it work. In The Difference Engine he is successful and the information age arrives at the same time as the age of steam, creating a history where Britain (being the source of this information age) is all powerful and the United States is fragmented into small, bickering nations.

James Bond on Horseback

Though the term "steampunk" itself did not appear until the late 1980's, one of the earliest works involving these elements was a 1960's television show called The Wild, Wild West. The program, which debuted in 1965 and starred Robert Conrad as the 19th century U.S. Secret Service Agent James West, owed its existence to James Bond author Ian Fleming.

Though spy movies had been around since the 50's, Fleming's James Bond novels launched the popular movies series which started with Dr. No, in 1962. The film was so successful it led to a number of copy cat movies like Our Man Flint and the Mat Helm films. Television series, ranging from the serious Man from U.N.C.L.E to the comic Get Smart also soon appeared. During this superspy craze some studio executive decided it made sense to combine the spy drama with America's previous craze, the Western. The combination was supposed to be "James Bond on horseback."

Because one of the staples of the Bond series was the technology (like rocket belts and cars with ejection seats) it was necessary to give agent James West similar devices. Since electronics and the internal combustion engine had not yet been invented, the devices were, of necessity, mechanical and often powered by steam. West utilized such gadget as a spring loaded derringer pistol up his sleeve and a stagecoach with an ejection seat, while his evil genius rivals had in their arsenal items like steam-powered robots and tanks.

The cover from the second issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The popular show lasted four years with two reunion specials in 1979 and 1980. In 1999 a motion picture featuring Will Smith and Kevin Klein was released bringing steampunk to the big screen. A few years later this was followed by another steam punk tale made for the silver screen: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen originally started as a series of comic books written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. It cleverly re-envisioned literary heroes (and some villains) from the 19th century in the same mold as 20th century superheroes united against a worldwide evil. Some of those Moore drafted into his league included Captain Nemo (from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon's Mines) and Dr. Jekyll (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

Neither the 2003 film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen nor the motion picture Wild, Wild West were as successful as the studios who made them hoped that they would be. This perhaps explains why we haven't seen more movies with steampunk themes. The subgenre, however, continues to flourish with comic books like The Five Fists of Science, TV series such as The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, computer games like Serbia and even anime in the form of Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy.

I have to admit that though many fans of The Wild, Wild West TV series found the movie too frivolous it has turned out to be a favorite of mine to watch over and over. Sorry, but how can you not like a motion picture that features an evil genius terrorizing the Old West with an eighty-foot high, steam-powered, mechanical tarantula?

The monster towers over the movie's protagonists like some giant erector set project gone awry. It's all open framework, bolted together with the internal cogs, pulleys, pinions, and cables all visible. It belches smoke as steam vents from its cylinders and gears. It is the Victorian imagination gone wild.

Cogs and Gears meet Romance

It's at this part of the essay I'll grapple with the question, why do fans find steampunk so compelling? Personally for me it's a fascination with a technology that no longer exists and in some ways could not exist. An eighty-foot steam powered spider just isn't practical. It is the past re-imagined as through our present.

The Disney/Goff design for the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For more information on this, and to see various steampunk versions of the Nautilus proposed through the years, check the The Catalog of Nautilus Designs website.

Different people express other reasons. "To me, it's essentially the intersection of technology and romance," explains Jake von Slatt, the owner of the website Steampunk Workshop. I think I understand what he's getting at. Our 21st century world has developed wonderful, powerful technologies, but our sleek silicon and plastic devices are cold and disposable. They lack the style and beauty that the Victorian Era lent its objects. Take one look at Captain Nemo's Nautilus from Disney's proto-steampunk 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and tell me that isn't a beautifully-designed machine. Perhaps not really a practical shape for a true submarine, but whatever points it loses in functionality are regained in style.

A similar view is taken by Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. In a Newsweek interview he states, "Steampunk uses the past to reflect on the present, much as science fiction uses the future. It has become a culture of tinkerers that sees modern technology as escaping our control; it's too virtual, not touching human experience in a visceral way."

Another compelling argument for why people are drawn to this era is that it was a time of exploration. Vast portions of the continents lay undiscovered. Science was just starting to open the secrets hidden by the physical universe. Adventure beckoned to anybody willing to leave the comfortable civilization of London, New York and the other cities of the developed world. We still have frontiers, but the bottom of the sea and the reaches of space are less inviting, less humanly accessible than the deep jungles of South America, the remote heights of the Himalayas or the majestic plains of Africa. I think we miss the call to adventure Verne and the other writers who followed him espoused in their works.

A steampunked monitor and keyboard from Steampunk Workshop.

Steampunk Creations

Well, so much for steampunk philosophy. Now to the interesting stuff, which is the work of a few steampunkers that I found fascinating. I'll start with the work of Jake von Slatt (not his real name, just his Steampunk moniker). In addition to running a steampunk blog, Von Slatt makes objects that look like they came from the 19th century, but have 20th century applications. Two of his creations really caught my eye: an all-in-one Victorian PC and a steampunk keyboard and monitor. Von Slatt usually starts by removing the sleek modern cases and exposing any cool internal mechanism. If there aren't any, he may give them some. Modern plastic keys and switches get replaced with antique buttons and brass levers. For his keyboard project Von Slatt ordered metal circular keys cut off an old typewriter to replace the smooth plastic keys to which we have grown accustomed. For more about his projects and methods check the Steampunk Workshop website. http://steampunkworkshop.com/

Another fascinating art project has been done by Eric Poulton. Poulton has created a series of prints re-envisioning Star Wars in a steampunk world. His works include portraits of Darth Vader (with his body armor apparently steam powered), Sir Obi Wan Kenobi, Lady Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Mr. Chewbacca. An especially interesting creation is a steam powered Massive Solar-Orbiting Electro-Mechanical Analytic Engine, Mark 6. This version of the Death Star has been made available by Mr. Poulton as computer wallpaper, and it is the current choice for my own Alienware Area 51. You can also order prints of his works through the deviant art website. Check out his blog at http://ericpoulton.blogspot.com/search/label/steampunk%20star%20wars

If there are Star Wars fans into steampunk, there surely are Star Trek fans too. If you doubt this visit You Tube and watch Steam Trek: The Moving Picture. This parody shows what the classic Sci-Fi show would have looked like if it had been filmed at the beginning of the 20th century. Take special note of the clever use of music.

Video Bonus - Steam Trek, a Steampunk/Star Trek parody.

Finally, don't miss visiting Crabfu Steamworks. http://www.crabfu.com/steamtoys/ Animator and inventor I-Wei Huang has built an amazing array of steam-powered robots. Perhaps robots might be the wrong term here. These objects are radio-controlled toys much like the "robots" you see trying to rip each other apart on robot wars, not machines capable of operating without human direction like C3PO in Star Wars. What they lack in independent action, however, they make up for in design ingenuity. Mr. Huang is a big fan of crabs (hence the site's name) and many of his creations move about on multiple legs, rather than just wheels. There is one that looks like a crab, another that moves like a spider, and even one that meanders like a centipede. He has also created wheeled and tracked machines too. All use live steam as their power source, though their radio receivers and solenoids are still powered by batteries. Finally, even though there isn't a C3PO smart enough to converse in a multiple million languages, there is a radio controlled R2D2 that rolls about under the power of twin steam power plants.

So I leave you at this point to explore the world of steampunk on your own. Just bring up Google, enter that term, and see how it takes you into a past that never quite existed.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2008. All Rights Reserved.


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