The Fascinating Origins and Evolution of Steampunk

Steampunk is a retro-futuristic subgenre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. It explores alternate histories dominated by steam power and gears. But where exactly did this fantastical genre originate from?

The Literary Origins

Although the term “steampunk” wasn’t coined until the 1980s, its roots can be traced back to 19th century science fiction and fantasy literature. Some of the earliest influences include:

  • Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, published in 1870, featured the advanced submarine Nautilus and laid the foundations for steampunk’s mix of futuristic technology and Victorian settings.
  • H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, published in 1895, had a time traveler venturing to the year 802,701 in a steampunk-esque vehicle.
  • “The Begum’s Fortune” by Jules Verne featured technologically advanced inventions and vehicles in 1879 India.
  • “The Warlord of the Air” by Michael Moorcock, published in 1971, imagined an alternate history where the British Empire harnessed airship technology to maintain its global dominance into the 20th century.

These early science fiction works established the genre’s interest in anachronistic retro-futurism, Victoriana aesthetics, and advanced steam/clockwork technologies.

The Visual Arts Influences

In the visual arts world, influences that paved the way for steampunk’s iconic aesthetic include:

  • The ‘Maltese Falcon’ film in 1941 prominently featured the huge art deco prop of the eponymous steamship.
  • Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film adaptation in 1954 brought Verne’s Nautilus spectacularly to life with intricate sets and designs.
  • The iconic retro-future steam trains and infrastructure in the 1962 film “Wild Wild West”.
  • Hayao Miyazaki’s anime “Castle in the Sky” in 1986, featuring elaborate airships and steampunk motifs.
  • Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” film in 1988 leaned heavily into a whimsical early steampunk aesthetic.

These pop culture works made Victoriana fashion and steam/clockwork-powered retro-futurism visibly exciting and helped establish the ‘look’ of steampunk.

The Coining of the Term “Steampunk”

The term “steampunk” itself was coined in the 1980s, most likely by author K.W. Jeter. Jeter used it in a 1987 letter to science fiction magazine Locus to describe his novels set in a Victorian era influenced by advanced steam technology.

The term was a tongue-in-cheek play on the established “cyberpunk” genre. But it stuck and soon grew to define a whole budding aesthetic movement.

Some other key early literary works that embraced the “steampunk” label include:

  • “Infernal Devices” by K.W. Jeter in 1987, a novel set in a Victorian England with advanced clockwork computers.
  • “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in 1990, which imagines Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine sparking an information age in the mid 1800s.
  • “Steamboy” manga and anime by Katsuhiro Otomo released in 1992, a major early influence on Japanese steampunk.

Steampunk Goes Mainstream

In the 1990s and 2000s, steampunk slowly gained momentum as a growing subculture and aesthetic. But several major pop culture events caused it to finally tip into the mainstream:

  • The 1999 film “Wild Wild West”, while poorly reviewed, widely exposed audiences to a steampunk wild west aesthetic.
  • “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comic book series started in 1999 and film in 2003 used overt steampunk stylings as it assembled a team of Verne and Wells characters.
  • Japan’s influence helped boost steampunk’s prominence globally. Along with “Steamboy”, there was also “Fullmetal Alchemist” manga and anime in the early 2000s.
  • “The Golden Compass” film in 2007, based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, featured opulent steampunk aesthetics.
  • The 2009 film “Sherlock Holmes” and its 2011 sequel with Robert Downey Jr. had a heavy steampunk visual style.
  • “Hugo” film by Martin Scorsese in 2011, set in a 1930’s Paris train station, paid homage to the pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès and his fantastical steampunk-inspired sets and clockwork automata.

Steampunk in the Modern Day

Now firmly established in the mainstream, steampunk influence can be seen across media in modern pop culture. Recent examples include:

  • “Dishonored” video game series (2012 – present) set in a whalepunk steampunk universe.
  • “Crimson Peak” gothic horror film by Guillermo del Toro released in 2015 used lavish steampunk machinery and props throughout its Victorian mansion setting.
  • “Carnival Row” neo-noir fantasy TV series released in 2019 on Amazon Prime, starring Orlando Bloom, features a steampunk vision of Victorian-esque fae world.
  • “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” animated film from 2018 includes Steampunk Spider-Woman as one of the many Spider-heroes.
  • Video games like “Frostpunk”, “They Are Billions”, and “Greedfall” incorporate steampunk elements into their game worlds.

Steampunk’s retro-futuristic appeal continues to be reimagined across books, comics, TV, film, fashion, and more. More than just a fiction genre, its influence seeps through literature, design, architecture, music, and an entire subculture.

The Key Evolution of Steampunk

In summary, the origins and evolution of steampunk can be traced through the key developments below:

Early 1800sProto-steampunk elements appear in early sci-fi and fantasy literature. Works by Verne, Wells, Poe, and others.
Late 1800s to early 1900sIconic steampunk visual influences emerge through film, art, architecture. Elaborate “future retro” aesthetics.
1970s to 80sIconic steampunk visual influences emerge through film, art, and architecture. Elaborate “future retro” aesthetics.
1990s to 2000sSteampunk evolves into a growing subculture and DIY aesthetic movement.
Late 2000s to presentSteampunk motifs go mainstream through major films, TV shows, games, and pop culture.

From its 19th century sci-fi origins through its explosion into the cultural mainstream, steampunk has established itself as an exciting retro-futuristic genre and aesthetic.

It nostalgically re-imagines the past while energetically looking to the future.

The unique appeal of steampunk continues to spread its influence across the pop culture landscape.

More Steampunk Resources

To learn more about steampunk’s origins and evolution, check out these excellent resources:

  • The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer – The ultimate guide to art, fashion, literature, music, and culture within the steampunk realm
  • Steaming into a Victorian Future – An academic study by Julie Anne Taddeo of steampunk’s literary history
  • The Steampunk Forum – Online community discussing all things steampunk
  • Steampunk Events Listing – Find steampunk conventions, festivals and meets in your area
  • The Steampunk Museum – Online museum showcasing steampunk arts and culture

Let us know if you have any other favorite resources for diving deeper into the origins of this fascinating retro-futuristic genre!

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