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?