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Who Put the Steam in Steampunk?

Dec 7, 2011

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Steampunk, that hypnotically beautiful, geeky, techy, vaguely Victorian yet decidedly futuristic art form, is generally regarded as having emerged during the 1980s; however, there is a powerful energy story connected to steampunk that goes back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Imagine what the world would be like if our energy technologies had never developed beyond steam power, while all our other technologies had continued to advance. That’s the premise of the steampunk fantasy, and it draws its aesthetic from the Victorians — the age of steam engines, fine woodworking, brass, rivets, and mechancial devices. Sprinkle in a little early Tesla electrical engineering and fold in the speculative fiction of fantasy writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Now you have the foundation for steampunk. It’s both hobbled and set free by the engineering and etiquette of the corseted past, with a love for futuristic scenarios that include air travel, space travel, time travel, and more.

But consider the basics of steam itself for a moment. Although the first recorded steam engine was described by mathematician, inventor, and energy engineer Hero of Alexandria, it was Thomas Newcomen’s  steam engine — designed around 1710 to pump water of out flooded mines — that is generally considered to be the crucial invention that launched the Industrial Revolution. Generated by heating water with fossil fuel (sometimes oil but usually coal), steam was the power that forged steel, built the railroads, drove mills and factories, and established the conditions of modern industrial life.

Steam can be surprisingly versatile. For example, it can power the engines of the now-retired Delta Queen steamboat, and simultaneously delight onlookers with a gutsy performance on the boat’s steam calliope.

But steam power is not an antique technology that we have left far behind. The truth is that today’s technologies — everything from the electricity that lights your home to the computer you are using to read this blog — still run on steam. How can that be? In a coal-fired power plant, burning coal heats giant boilers whose steam turns the generators that produce electricity. In fact, you could say that one definition of an electrical power plant is “a giant steam machine.” Even nuclear power plants, which we tend to think of as forbiddingly high tech, work on the same principle. Nuclear energy produces heat, which turns water into steam, and the steam powers electrical generators. And the use of steam is actually increasing dramatically, not dimishing, as technology advances. Energy expert Richard Heinberg writes that in China “a new coal power plant opens, on average, every four days.” China produces about 80% of its electricity from steam made from burning coal, the U.S. roughly 50%. That’s a lot of steam, and there has been no subsitute discovered yet that is likely to displace that massive amount of energy any time soon.

So perhaps steampunk — because of its whimsy, wild imagination, and exposed mechanical operations — is a useful tool to help improve our understanding of the fundamentals of energy we have used for the last three centuries.

When I talk to very young people about energy, steampunk is a great opener. It’s fun, but also profoundly useful to speculate: What if we had no energy grid but had to power each of our devices independently? Would that be possible, and if not, are there ways to provide centralized electricity without the destructive practices inherent in modern coal mining?

What if our entire culture had skipped electricity altogether and was powered by the direct use of steam, as much of it was in earlier times?

What if the Stanley Steamer had become the model for the modern automobile? And how might our energy use be different if we had to handle each piece of coal individually, rather than enjoying the convenience of just flipping a switch?

Ray Gun, Cast Aluminum and Bronze, with Spring Trigger for Cosmic Rays
Ray Gun, Cast Aluminum and Bronze, with Spring Trigger for Cosmic Rays
$180.00 USD
Brown embossed leather steampunk goggles - cameo and clock faces
Brown embossed leather steampunk goggles - cameo and clock faces
Sold
Men's BALLOON FISH t shirt s m l xl xxl (+ Color Options)
Men's BALLOON FISH t shirt s m l xl xxl (+ Color Options)
$22.00 USD
Antique Fuse Steampunk Earrings, Wearable Tech, Eco-friendly Glass Tubes, Silver ONLY, You Blow Blow Your Fuse When You've Fallen in Love.
Antique Fuse Steampunk Earrings, Wearable Tech, Eco-friendly Glass Tubes, Silver ONLY, You Blow Blow Your Fuse When You've Fallen in Love.
$33.00 USD
USB Typewriter -- Underwood with Faux Walnut Finish
USB Typewriter -- Underwood with Faux Walnut Finish
Sold
Armor Cage Ring - Copper - handmade in Austin, Texas - Jamie Spinello - Long Cage Ring
Armor Cage Ring - Copper - handmade in Austin, Texas - Jamie Spinello - Long Cage Ring
$60.00 USD

118 comments

  • theroyal

    theroyal said 5 years ago

    do you think maybe webster put the "steam" in "steampunk"

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 5 years ago

    hayao miyazaki did a lot with "porco rosso".

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 5 years ago

    Wonderful article thanks for sharing.

  • TheBloomingThread

    TheBloomingThread said 5 years ago

    so stinkin cool...i love all the shops here that are right on trend with this. especially all the cool jewelry.

  • ArtWhims

    ArtWhims said 5 years ago

    This was a great read! I learned something today - thanks for keeping me young ;)

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 5 years ago

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 5 years ago

    I would live to have the mobile phone in my bag. Very cool.

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 5 years ago

    I want that fancy "ray gun"! Bam! Pow! Zap!

  • manvsgeorge

    manvsgeorge said 5 years ago

    Ditto - that ray gun is going on my Christmas list!

  • PoleStar

    PoleStar said 5 years ago

    really fun article, thanks for the insight!

  • sonyarasi

    sonyarasi said 5 years ago

    Interesting!

  • mikiheather

    mikiheather said 5 years ago

    Just bought a steampunk neckwear item for my husband from smitherine. Love it!

  • NotMyBag

    NotMyBag said 5 years ago

    Something very intriguing about the whole "steampunk" revolution. Must be the Victorian influences...gorgeous!

  • anthologyorganic

    anthologyorganic said 5 years ago

    fascinating, lavishly artful ! the steamer is hilarious and beautiful at the same time :)

  • kepaterwic

    kepaterwic said 5 years ago

    this is a good article. I don't want to seem snobby or a media hog but if you would like to read my blog. it is all about steampunk. www.kathrynpaterwic.wordpress.com

  • Nikifashion

    Nikifashion said 5 years ago

    Very interesting post!

  • BiomedDesign

    BiomedDesign said 5 years ago

    Great article! fun to read.

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 5 years ago

    Great read!

  • elleestpetite

    elleestpetite said 5 years ago

    Very interesting. I've always wondered about some of these things.

  • dniceboater

    dniceboater said 5 years ago

    Great post.

  • ARTenticement

    ARTenticement said 5 years ago

    LOVE the vintage Victorian "steam" in steampunk. If technology stopped today, would we call it "silicone punk"?!

  • uniquefabricgifts

    uniquefabricgifts said 5 years ago

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing

  • Grafxquest

    Grafxquest said 5 years ago

    I really love all the Steam Punk craze. I have been slowly making pieces myself. I find it to be fun mysterious kitchey and romantic! Love this so much thank you. The new Sherlock Holmes movie coming out has a bit of this flavor too.

  • GHIlluminations

    GHIlluminations said 5 years ago

    Aside from the really really cool cast aluminum ray gun, I'm excited by the interest in past technology more than today's style-conscious hype. Old technology still works! I use my hand planes and pull saws every day. I waste less wood & make less mess than power tools, don't waste fossil fuels, and feel greater satisfaction as my craftsmanship improves. Humans are no smarter now than they were 2,000 years ago (check out the Antikythera Mechanism at www.antikythera-mechanism.gr); is it possible they felt more connected to their world than we do today? Great Blog!

  • BagNoir

    BagNoir said 5 years ago

    Great article Karen!!!! Love Steampunk !!!!

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose said 5 years ago

    Love this feature and steampunk!

  • BitsandPurses

    BitsandPurses said 5 years ago

    Great article, Karen! I am so in love with Steampunk!

  • organicmountainwoman

    organicmountainwoman said 5 years ago

    Great post Karen. I'm maaaaadly in love with everything steampunk! Check our my steampunk treasury (I might just have to buy everything on it!) http://www.etsy.com/treasury/MTA2NzIzOTV8MTMzODIyOTkzMw/steampunktastic?index=4

  • emwi

    emwi said 5 years ago

    Love the earrings and the whole industrial look.

  • ferrijoe

    ferrijoe said 5 years ago

    What was I thinking? This stuff is contagious!

  • DuryeaPlaceDesigns

    DuryeaPlaceDesigns said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • theGEOera

    theGEOera said 5 years ago

    Fantastic (and educational) article, there! Steampunk is awesome(who wouldn't want a ray gun?), and it's great to see someone delve into the history behind it all.

  • Briole

    Briole said 5 years ago

    Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing!

  • kateemarie

    kateemarie said 5 years ago

    great article!

  • jarmfarm

    jarmfarm said 5 years ago

    I enjoyed this very thought provoking article. When I was a young girl I remember seeing antique tractors in our small town parade than ran on steam power. (here I go letting my age be known) I think that most of the early tractors were steam powered just like the early locomotive trains. Personally, I'm very fond of the Steampunk style and if I were only 25 years younger.....

  • jenya2

    jenya2 said 5 years ago

    I have always been facinated by the steampunk style. Thank you for this very intriging article!

  • ohbabydotcom

    ohbabydotcom said 5 years ago

    Great steampunk!

  • cooljewelrydesign

    cooljewelrydesign said 5 years ago

    very informative story that takes us along...from the past and sits us front and center, right alongside these amazing artists and creations. It is a quirky and obsessive style.... Love it! TY!

  • BroccoliHouse

    BroccoliHouse said 5 years ago

    Love steampunk theme!

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    If your house has a hot water boiler, you've got steam powered heating and possibly the old cast iron, ornate radiators that go with it. Great article!

  • demonkitty101

    demonkitty101 said 5 years ago

    Love it.I have loved steampunk since before I knew it had a name!! Wells,Verne,Moorcock,Lumley, etc,the imagination is literally out of this world. I also feed my interest by making steampunk jewellery and selling it here on etsy-(shameless self promotion!!)

  • demonkitty101

    demonkitty101 said 5 years ago

    PS-Check out the TV show Sanctuary,and the Movie' The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' for some great steampunk visuals.

  • BustleInYourHedgerow

    BustleInYourHedgerow said 5 years ago

    I think it's great how you used steampunk notions to make a point about how we create and use energy today. I have learned a lot about current energy use in my senior capstone class and one of the things we have talked about is that not only is it important to develop new energy sources, but that we start to change our patterns of energy usage. I think I'm paraphrasing, but I liked how that point about "how would our energy use change if we had to power each of our devices individually, instead of being part of a grid, or if we had to think about each piece of coal". If we could find ways to use less energy and use alternative energy sources, I think we would start to reduce a lot of the pollution and energy availability problems we have. Great article! :)

  • vintagehomerecycled

    vintagehomerecycled said 5 years ago

    Great Article! If you ever find yourself in Kingfield, Maine, don't miss the Stanley Steamer Museum http://www.stanleymuseum.org/

  • StraightLacedSF

    StraightLacedSF said 5 years ago

    I have been obsessed with Steampunk for years. One of the reasons I began sewing! Thank you!

  • WhisperingOak

    WhisperingOak said 5 years ago

    Karen, great article. I enjoyed reading it

  • PruAtelier

    PruAtelier said 5 years ago

    I too am a bit of a steampunk afficionado and love some of the clothes, but REALLY love the steampunk computers I found first on the web, then someone came to Etsy....see http://www.etsy.com/listing/48732570/custom-built-vintage-looking-20inch

  • UniqueNecks

    UniqueNecks said 5 years ago

    Oh! Love love love! This is awesome ;D TAGT

  • RetroRevivalBoutique

    RetroRevivalBoutique said 5 years ago

    Awesomeness! Thanks for sharing! ^__^

  • BlueMoonLights

    BlueMoonLights said 5 years ago

    Great post!

  • Thebracelettree

    Thebracelettree said 5 years ago

    Great and fabulous post! Loved reading a little history on this fun movement! TAGT enjoyed!

  • BowerAndRoach

    BowerAndRoach said 5 years ago

    Thanks, interesting article.

  • sballgurl072005

    sballgurl072005 said 5 years ago

    My hubby wants to make some lampstands like this

  • GemstoneDragonflies

    GemstoneDragonflies said 5 years ago

    Fantastic article Tagt xo

  • myalexasstore10

    myalexasstore10 said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • Talking1

    Talking1 said 5 years ago

    A very fun read. . .Mind stretching - "skipping electricity", WoW.

  • sarafurey

    sarafurey said 5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing, great article super interesting!!!

  • silversamba

    silversamba said 5 years ago

    I love the term 'steampunk' because it just seems to perfectly describe that style!

  • TheNightjar

    TheNightjar said 5 years ago

    wow, who knew? thanks for sharing all of this

  • vinskord

    vinskord said 5 years ago

    Great article!! Really cool finds!

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl said 5 years ago

    I think the steampunk style is fascinating! Thanks for the bit of history on it...beyond the association to Jules Verne I had no idea!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Interesting! Love it!

  • AudreysBrush

    AudreysBrush said 5 years ago

    Great post ! Thank you!

  • divelegant

    divelegant said 5 years ago

    gee, who would think back in the day if they ever thought we would use steampunk as their focal point in the future, I see steampunk as just another fancy word that spells out: vintage. Great Theme!

  • NaturalandVintage

    NaturalandVintage said 5 years ago

    hey, the Delta Queen is anchored right down the street from me! interesting article

  • SASessories

    SASessories said 5 years ago

    very nice... its good to see the definition of steampunk expanding a bit!

  • fiberstory

    fiberstory said 5 years ago

    OMIGOSH! Those are Eric Freitas' (my husband's) clocks in that video! The exhibition was an awesome excuse for us to take a trip to Oxford, England a couple of years ago. We met so many great artists--it was quite an experience! THANK YOU ETSY for featuring the show! xoxoxo Sarah Freitas

  • LaBohemeBijoux

    LaBohemeBijoux said 5 years ago

    Great article!! Thanks for sharing

  • DarwinsDress

    DarwinsDress said 5 years ago

    Great show!!! We Love Steampunk!!

  • BowerAndRoach

    BowerAndRoach said 5 years ago

    The wall clock in the video was especially amazing and beautiful.

  • redzebradesigns

    redzebradesigns said 5 years ago

    Old to new - love it. The USB typewriters are awesome!

  • FluffyFlowers

    FluffyFlowers said 5 years ago

    you ask some very interesting questions. our energy consumption in the u.s.a. is astronomical. one thing i do to cut down on my power use is to cook outside in a solar oven. living in the deep south, we've got plenty of sunshine! :)

  • JCTgoods

    JCTgoods said 5 years ago

    Steam cars are fantastic.

  • katieduran

    katieduran said 5 years ago

    Steam punk is very trendy and I like this article's approach to looking at it. I recently listened to a new podcast that talked about it as well but from the 'geek' point of view and where it lives in pop culture today. This links to the show summary notes with a link to the show there. http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2011/10/25/popstuff-show-notes-episode-9-steampunk-put-a-gear-on-it/

  • Latrouvaille

    Latrouvaille said 5 years ago

    Such an interesting explanation of the concept. Thank you for this. Though I love things so named, I had really no idea of its origins. My daughter is a Victorian scholar and I live in a farming community. The perfect mix!

  • SteampunkArtSupplies

    SteampunkArtSupplies said 5 years ago

    Thanks for the great post. I love this stuff! I have a blog where I showcase artists and have instructions on how to get supplies for this art form. http://steampunkartsupplies.com/ Thanks!

  • TastefulThings

    TastefulThings said 5 years ago

    I admire the era of industrial revolution, nothing like that happened in a thousands of years! Great post

  • pebblekonsept

    pebblekonsept said 5 years ago

    Great article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 5 years ago

    The beautiful use of woods and metals is refreshing in this age of plastics. Been following this art movement since I first fell in love with a steampunk keyboard online. I particularly love the functional pieces.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 5 years ago

    Great article! Everyone is always so intrigued by this relatively new style, me included :)

  • BroLemon

    BroLemon said 5 years ago

    Steam power is definetly a great source of energy. However, the source of power to create the steam is definetly NOT good. China produces most ofr the world's pollution, which the coal fired plants contribute to. Nuclear power has inherent dangers. To bad we can't imporve the means to produce steam.

  • raspberryhead

    raspberryhead said 5 years ago

    from the fashion aspect part of me mourns this becoming a fad or a trend. there are a lot of people who have taken it to a "costumy" and "play dress up" "kitchy" level but some of us have been fascinated by vintage and the victorian era since we were little children. i watched "pretty baby" a million times and wore old lady shoes and funny litlle sweaters and was looked at as just plain weird. goth started same way. people with an interest in things not so mainstream. kaleidoscopes, hankerchiefs, emboidery scissors on chantelains. i wish it could all blow over and history lovers were just plain old strange people again. giggle

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    I like steampunk too, I find it quite fascinating! Would make running an iphone pretty tricky if you had to rely on steam power

  • Europedesign

    Europedesign said 5 years ago

    ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas said 5 years ago

    I love steampunk but can never fully understand/describe it...thanks for the enlightenment.

  • alangood

    alangood said 5 years ago

    Not just about a fashion, but really an energy story. I love the way you look at the not-so-obvious inspiration behind a trend, revealling something meaningful. We long for the complex machines of simpler time?

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 5 years ago

    I was never fully sure about the meaning of steampunk, but thanks to your article and videos I am now an expert!

  • GeekeryDOO

    GeekeryDOO said 5 years ago

    Very interesting article and great base for creative thoughts and a debate about this subject. When someone says steampunk, in my mind, I go straight to Captain Nemo, my childhood hero. I devoured all Jules Verne's novels. I have a lifelong fascination with inventions. My father and my grandfather were both Engineers and inventors. No surprise there that my husband is one too. In my little sister shop I make jewelry from my father’s precious antique electronic parts. I have a fascination with Tesla. I still feel that this world isn’t ready for all his inventions. Thank you so much for featuring my Fuse earrings her on your blog. ♥Eva

  • AirshipIsabella

    AirshipIsabella said 5 years ago

    Nice Article! We tweeted it this morning.

  • zenthreads

    zenthreads said 5 years ago

    Great article. Thanks for including us in this amazing post! We're so honored!♡

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka said 5 years ago

    GREAT ARTICLE!

  • baybeari

    baybeari said 5 years ago

    Steam punk is a wonderful style, and I love that it honors a historical period of industrial human progress! It's very cool that there are these fantastic Etsy shops that offer items that are styled with steam punk finesse! Great article! I love the videos. :)

  • jamiespinello

    jamiespinello said 5 years ago

    Amazing! Thanks for including my handmade black copper holster ring!!! Steampunk style to me represents a mindset that appreciates the art of machinery and pre-industrial revolution machine design for its beauty over function. Pulling out elements from those old archaic arcane designs and infusing them with new life by repurposing them in beautiful wearable ways. There are many great links people are posting in the comments that I am going to check out. Here is a link to an awesome museum right outside of L.A. If you are ever near there, you should try to go. unfortunately you can't really tell from the website how awesome it is museum of jurassic technology http://www.mjt.org/

  • DirtyRedBandanna

    DirtyRedBandanna said 5 years ago

    I am falling in love with steampunk more and more! Thanks for the awesome article!

  • mbueb

    mbueb said 5 years ago

    Energy as fashion... who woulda thought?

  • MySecretFace

    MySecretFace said 5 years ago

    very interesting article! it seems everything would be much simple if we would not ivolve from the steam era.... sometimes i prefer mechanical thecnology...

  • starking

    starking said 5 years ago

    Very interesting and thought-provoking...

  • redstringstudio

    redstringstudio said 5 years ago

    great article, I'm mesmerized by well done steampunk items....such a beautiful artform!

  • LizardSkins

    LizardSkins said 5 years ago

    i love learning about style...thanks

  • janeeroberti

    janeeroberti said 5 years ago

    great way to wake up this morning, with a good dose of hard critical speculative thinking. thanks! i learned a lot.

  • costanzavintagecraft

    costanzavintagecraft said 5 years ago

    A perfect description of the genre!

  • truthbeautyandlove27

    truthbeautyandlove27 said 5 years ago

    What interesting concept, holding each piece of coal individually rather just flipping a switch. I like modern convience as much as anyone but I think something is lost when you just flip a switch with out being aware of the process

  • MonaAbraham

    MonaAbraham said 4 years ago

    very interesting article, great featured artists. love it.

  • keoops8

    keoops8 said 4 years ago

    steam........ . nice, teme,

  • mktengineer

    mktengineer said 4 years ago

    as an artist, I love the style of steampunk,. as an engineer, a world run on steam is a utopia of rust.

  • WinchesterLambourne

    WinchesterLambourne said 4 years ago

    There's a video of my lovely town. :D

  • StrappyKincaid

    StrappyKincaid said 4 years ago

    very informative!

  • HelloAperture

    HelloAperture said 4 years ago

    Awesome stuff! I've always been partial to anything Steampunk. I don't dress in that style, but I really like Steampunk things. They always look so cool :D

  • Ivriniel

    Ivriniel said 4 years ago

    The ray gun made of cast aluminum is really more Dieselpunk than Steampunk.

  • Nelles

    Nelles said 4 years ago

    We love your choice of videos and description of steam punk. Many of our pieces are classified by other people as coming near the steampunk style, even though Scott did not design them as such. We are fascinated by this style, however, with all of the gears and sci-fi mixed in. Thanks for featuring our Ray Gun. We really appreciate this blog and your research into it!

  • JewelsbyJasmin

    JewelsbyJasmin said 4 years ago

    Love this article

  • LeCoquetteCouture

    LeCoquetteCouture said 4 years ago

    What a wonderfully different take on the concept! Great job Lady Karen :) I've done a fair amount of research on the subject & you've really created a truly refreshing take, I'm sending it to lots of my "Steamy" friends & clients. Thank You! Happy Holidays Everyone >^.*<

  • SylwiaGlassArt

    SylwiaGlassArt said 4 years ago

    Love this article. Well written. Thank you Karen!

  • QuirkMuseum

    QuirkMuseum said 4 years ago

    Great article and videos. Being a fan of vintage stuff, sci-fi and history, I like the whole idea of Steampunk. Gotta get me one one of those ray guns.

  • HouseofAvandan

    HouseofAvandan said 4 years ago

    Love steampunk!

  • MachineBrothers

    MachineBrothers from MachineBrothers said 2 years ago

    Steampunk lives because we have forgotten how to make things, and when we buy something we don't know how it works. Steampunk opens the box letting us see inside the clockworks ... and we love it! I have been creating for years and I know that I will never get tired of looking in the box and wondering at the clockworks.

  • 1StopSteampunkShoppe

    One Stop Steampunk Shoppe from OneStopSteamShoppe said 2 years ago

    Steampunk is amazing! it reflects on so much great history! nice read. Thanks

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