The History of Steampunk (Part I)

Muppets love it!

When you mention the word “Steampunk” in mixed company you are likely to get one of two reactions: delight followed by a list of favorite references, or confusion followed by a blank stare. It is, to say the least, a niche genre, but has been incredibly influential in both fiction and reality.

To start with, Steampunk is not the only name it goes by. Other labels include Steampulp, Gaslamp Fantasy, Victorian Sci-Fi, The Weird Weird West, and Les Voyages Extraordinaires. There are major and minor differences between the various terms. For instance Weird Weird West typically takes place in the wilder parts of North America during or after the Civil War, but before the West was won. In each subgenre, however, romance is a common element.

"Helloooo, ladies."

Gaslamp usually takes place anywhere in Western civilization in large cities. Victorian Sci-Fi is rarely set outside of Europe, and more often than not is set in England. Les Voyages Extraordinaires takes place in either exotic locales like Africa, deep in the planet, or out in space. Steampulp is any of the above, but typically in the vein of 1950’s horror movies. For the purposes of convenience, however, we will be referring to the entire genre as Steampunk, unless necessity dictates otherwise.

Typically Steampunk stories include advanced technology made out of iron, copper, brass, glass, clockwork, wood, various gasses, steam engines, and occasionally Tesla-esque uses of electricity. Powered flight is often featured, but almost always limited to dirigibles and propeller planes. Imagine how Hollywood might sensationalize advanced technology for the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.

(...on second thought, don't.)

Remember that this was a time when the common man knew nearly nothing of science, and the uncommon man had just been exposed to world-changing technologies during the Industrial Revolution. There was an explosion of advancement and a genuine belief that nearly anything would be possible given proper application of formulas and materials. The French were still very highly regarded as the pinnacle of art, culture, and being at the forefront of science.

YA RLY

The culture of Steampunk regularly features Victorian fashion, the characters are typically of the upper class: ladies and gentlemen of refinement, civility, and reason. Mad scientists feature in nearly every story, and in many cases are even the main character, be they hero or villain.

Got goggles?

One of the more interesting features of Steampunk is that women, especially primary characters, are often portrayed in roles equal to or even superior to that of men. Considering the first modern country to allow women to vote was New Zealand in 1893, and the first to allow them to run for office was Finland in 1906, the movement Women’s Liberation was as much fantastic thinking as it was cutting-edge human rights during the Victorian era. The idea of a female combatant, scientist, or lawyer in “civilized society” would have been shocking to most during that time frame, yet they feature prominently in Steampunk works.

Ada Byron, the real life Mistress of Steampunk

Finally, immigrant scientists from areas including and surrounding Germany often figure quite heavily into many Steampunk works, likely because of all the incredible minds that came out of these parts, and their competition with France to be at the forefront of Science.

O RLY?

At it’s heart, Steampunk is about misadventures bypassing the very outer edges of technology, sanity, and social convention, while simultaneously attempting to maintain all three. It is not just Fiction, it is Sensational, Scientific, and above-all, Stylish.

The Cary Grant of Steampunk Computers

More often than not, Steampunk is referred to as an Alternate History, Alternate World, or Alternate Future. Currently, this is correct. However, the genre itself has existed since before 1000 AD in one form or another, so in the past it was simply speculative fiction. For all the authors knew, their works would indeed come true.

Arguably, the earliest recorded Steampunk stories come from the anthology “One Thousand and One Nights” (aka Arabian Nights) involves two such tales. The first is “City of Brass” which features life-like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot. The second, “The Ebony Horse,” features a robot in the form of a flying mechanical horse that is controlled using keys, could fly into outer space towards the Sun, and could travel through time at the rate of one year per day. Considering that the Middle-East was the absolute forefront of wealth, technology, and medicine in the world prior to the Crusades, fiction of this should come as no surprise to the history buff.

Dibs on the term "Sandpunk"

Technocracy, or rule by science, another common theme in Steampunk novels was first popularized by Sir Francis Bacon in his “Nova Atlantis” (1624). Shortly thereafter comes an explosion of Science Fiction, including the first work in English, Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone” (1638). However, we do not see the rise of The Mad Scientist until Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus” (1818), in which the main characters are a mad scientist and his creation.

...and hilarity ensues!

The first true Steampunk book is generally considered to be Jules Verne’s “Voyage au centre de la Terre” (A Journey to the Center of the Earth) in 1864. It features a German mad scientist, traveling on an amazing voyage into a hollow Earth, strange inventions, and scientific explanations for odd phenomena. Verne’s work, along with H. G. Wells, and Mark Twain, are commonly credited with beginning the genre, but all might have disappeared into obscurity were it not for the French.

"Quoi?"

In 1900, barely 2% of the United States was considered literate. Let that sink in for a moment. Only one out of every 50 people could read, and most of the ones that did only owned two books (if that many): “The Bible,” and “The McGuffey Reader.” Newspapers made up the vast majority of anything else that got read. Fiction was still largely considered blasphemy by many, a waste of time by most, science fiction was a tiny slice of fiction itself, and Steampunk had perhaps five books in the entire genre in circulation among literary circles. In short, Steampunk was doomed to failure in America because we were simply too ignorant to even be exposed to it, much less read it, appreciate it, and collect it.

But then a talented artist/techno-prophet produced a series of books that exposed the entire world to the concepts of Science Fiction, and Steampunk in particular. His name was Albert Robida.

"Moi."

Robida’s first work was “Voyage Très Extraordinaires De Saturnin Farandoul Dans Les 5 ou 6 Parties Du Monde Et Dans Tous Les Pays Connus Et Même Inconnus De M. Jules Verne” (or “Saturnin Farandoul’s Most Extraordinary Travels throughout the World and Every Country Known and Unknown to Jules Verne, in 5 or 6 Parts.”) in 1879. It was a parody, and helped spread the word and give legitimacy to Jules Verne. But what truly thrust Steampunk and Sci-Fi in general was the trio of works Robida later produced:

“Le Vingtième Siècle” (The Twentieth Century), 1883.
“La Guerre au vingtième Siècle” (War in the Twentieth Century) 1887.
“Le Vingtième Siècle. La vie électrique” (20th Century: The Electric Life) 1890.

In this trilogy, Robida made concepts plainly visible to the common man by way of illustration. This was absolutely crucial. Pictures do not require France’s late 19th Century literacy rate of over 90% in order to be approved. You show a backwoods, illiterate American Hillbilly of the 1900’s a picture of a a flying car, he’s going to know exactly what he’s looking at.

(Rifle-rack and monster truck tires optional.)

Robida’s more popular illustrations became even more popular postcards, which in turn found swift delivery around the world. This ability to convey the precepts of Science Fiction to a worldwide audience was in and of itself and incredible feat. What made his works truly amazing, however, is in just how eerily true to life they became. He didn’t just come close, his drawings were, for the most part, more of an accurate prediction of the future than Nostradamus. Just how accurate? Well, for one thing, he knew that women would eventually become both warriors and leaders.

Well, sure, maybe in some sissy country like France something like that would happen, but not in someplace with a REAL Army, like America! Even if they made a woman a General, which would never happen, it’s not like she could ever get four stars–Oh, wait, that totally happened!

Hell yeah it did!

Well that’s not that impressive of a prediction. Any man able to divide 2 in half should have been able to see women would eventually be treated as equals, even if he lacked the balls to admit it. But it’s not like Robida predicted Television or something…

Been there. Done that.

Or portable storage media…

Ask your thumbdrive "Whose your daddy?" (hint: it's Robida)

…or the Redbox rental machines…

He even drew her from the same angle.

…or the iPod…

"Take California...That's Alright..."

…or distance learning classes…

"Je suis une Phoenix."

…FINE! But at least he didn’t predict the Internet, right?

Blogger...

...internet cafe...

...YouTube!

And that’s just a very brief sampling of his works. We could probably devote entire posts to the various parallels between his predictions and the real-life results. As a result of Robida’s works, Verne, Steampunk, and Science Fiction in general gained both credibility and popularity with people who couldn’t even read. Even when the authors themselves didn’t benefit directly, their ideas did, and inspired fiction and fact for the next hundred years and more. It is perhaps this, more than the elegant style and nostalgia, that keeps the genre alive, well, and growing to this day.

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