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.
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
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 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.
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.
cover from the second issue of The League of Extraordinary
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
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.
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
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.
steampunked monitor and keyboard from Steampunk Workshop.
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.
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.
Finally, don't miss visiting Crabfu Steamworks.
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.