An Illustrated Guide to Steampunk 1- The Origin of a Genre

In Which We Get Ready for a Fantabulous Fare


Dearest reader. You have been warned. Your ideas, your thoughts, your fashion, your reading, your romance, nay, your entire life will not be the same again. For you are about to be steam-punked.If you already are well versed in the Victoriana and have steampunk running through your copper lined veins, I salute thee.


If you aren't, you who live in a world that has been sullied by digitalisation, you need an abject lesson in the science of steam and in the onslaught of the industrial revolution.


Maybe you are a secret steampunker. Maybe you already have the cogs of steampunk whirring disjointedly in your mind and body, yet to be discovered. Then I welcome thee to this humble introduction by yours truly.


'Do you pine for the chuff chuff of a rocking steam engine over the soulless glide of an electric one? Do you care for the clackety clack of a Remington typewriter over the bouncy plastic of your keyboard?...'

In Which We Pine for a Pernickety Past...


Do you ache for the scratchy yet seductive sounds of an old gramophone player? Do you wish for adventurous gentlemen who would wear top hats and tails and carry ferrule tipped sticks of polished ebony? Would you prefer your fearless ladies with corsets and cunning? Do you pine for the chuff chuff of a rocking steam engine over the soulless glide of an electric one? Do you care for the clackety clack of a Remington typewriter over the bouncy plastic of your keyboard?


Then you have come to the right place. For this, dear Ladies and Gentlemen, is Docmo's Illustrated guide to all things Steampunk.


So wear these bronze goggles with these fabulous leather straps, strap onto your wicker basket chair in this Aetherial Airship of wonders as I power up my engine, pull a few levers, adjust the multifarious dials and leap into the foggy skies of Victorian London.


Lets see what Steampunk is all about...

Writer K.W.Jeter, in an effort to categorize such a sub genre, playfully suggested the term 'Steampunk' (as a contrast to 'Cyberpunk') in a letter he wrote in 1987 to the SF industry magazine 'Locus' and Steampunk was born.

In Which We Discourse the Origin of a Genre


Steampunk emerged as a subgenre of science fiction in the eighties and early nineties although the influences can be traced back to the 19th century.

If you are a fan of the scientific romances of the 19th century, you will recognise the template set for steampunk. The wonderful stories of those forefathers of science fiction, Herbert George Wells and Jules Verne, are a direct influence on the subgenre of steampunk.


There are certain common elements - an alternate history in which steam powered machinery and devices that could have been of Victorian manufacture ( or envisioned in Victorian times) feature heavily. It usually is science fiction genre but maybe cross fertilized by fantasy, horror and alternate history. Conventional wisdom is overturned. There are no digital devices. There's plenty of steam, and clank clank of gargantuan machinery. Airships, large mechanical submarines, large mechanical computers with valves all are in copious numbers.


Although earlier works can be traced that are allied to this genre, it was in the early eighties that there was a resurgence of stories set in alternate Victorian England, featuring versions of technology as envisioned by scientists of that bygone era and a writing style reminiscent of Wells and Verne. Writers such as Tim Powers, James P Blaylock and K.W. Jeter were the contributors to such themes.


Jeter, in an effort to categorize such a sub genre, playfully suggested the term ' Steampunk' for these assorted efforts, in a letter he wrote to the venerable SF publishing industry magazine 'Locus' . Steampunk was born.

In which we see the First Mention of the Word Steampunk...

Letter to Editor from SF author  K.W.Jeter - scanned  from Locus Magazine April 1987.
Letter to Editor from SF author K.W.Jeter - scanned from Locus Magazine April 1987.

In Which We Trace the Scientific Romances That Begat Steampunk


There are many novels that emerged in the eighties and nineties that signaled the emergence of this retro sub-genre. While the digital futures had the champions in cyberpunk with its virtual realities and digital after lives, there were those who craved for Dickensian descents into Victoriana.

These authors mashed-up, Wells and Verne, threw in sprinklings of myth and magic, invented devices worthy of industrial revolutions master craftsmen and concocted blooming good adventures that evoked an era with a new twist.


Here are a few stalwarts...


Morlock Night by KW Jeter  first pub. 1979 ( This new edition published by Angry Robot books in 2011 with Cover Art by John Coulthart )
Morlock Night by KW Jeter first pub. 1979 ( This new edition published by Angry Robot books in 2011 with Cover Art by John Coulthart )

Morlock Night by KW Jeter


In a Moebius strip worthy of a twist, KW Jeter's 1979 novel Morlock Night features those fearsome creations of HG Wells, the Morlocks. Straight from the pages of the 'Time Machine' Jeer's protagonists manage to acquire the Time Machine for themselves and return to Victorian England to cause chaos and mayhem.


In this hour of need, who better to stand for the salvation of England but its greatest heroes. In this a madcap adventure, myth and legend effortlessly intermingles with science and action. A marvelous read, one could see all the elements of steampunk in this novel.


Jeter would later follow up with a flamboyantly steampunkish novel, Infernal Devices in 1987. This was also the time when he suggested the collective term of Steampunk to Locus in an attempt to categorize what he and his close friends Tim Powers and James P Blaylock were writing.


Homunculus by James P Blaylock originally published in 1986 as an Ace Paperback by Berkeley Publishing- this new edition is by Babbage Press.
Homunculus by James P Blaylock originally published in 1986 as an Ace Paperback by Berkeley Publishing- this new edition is by Babbage Press.

Homunculus by James P Blaylock


Published in 1986, this fantastical fable combines all the aforementioned elements of steam punk . A dirigible with a dead pilot in a decaying orbit around the earth, The nefarious vivisectionist Dr Ignacio Narbondo who is bringing the dead back to life in Victorian London, The heroic Langdon St Ives and the Trimegistus Club that has as its members a group of scientists and philosophers, corrupt wrongdoings in the Royal society, all combine into a relentlessly paced storyline that will delight fans of a good thriller.


This book came out ( as did Morlock Night ) before anyone had head of Steampunk. It entertained the readers who didn't realize they were reading the birth of a new movement. Blaylock had earlier written a borderline steampunk novel set in 1964 California featuring subterranean creatures and bizarre technology 'The Digging Leviathan' ( 1984). He followed Homunculus with another Steampunk triumph casled Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992)

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers published in 1983 by Ace Books. It won the Philp K Dick award and was nominated for several more
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers published in 1983 by Ace Books. It won the Philp K Dick award and was nominated for several more

The Anubis Gates By Tim Powers

One of the earliest and best examples of the genre, Tim Power's tour-de-force features an astonishing blend of magic and mayhem interspersed with an alternate hsitory settign where the British Empire is at war with the gods of Egypt summoned forth by a powerful cabal of magicians. In 1983 ( the novel was publsihed) a timid English professor Coyle is hired by an ailing billionaire to traeverse the Anubis Gates in order to attend a lecture by Coleridge.

All hell breaks loose as Professor Coyle gets kidnapped and trapped in 19th century London. A deluded yet powerful Magician called the Master is plotting to bring down the British Empire by summoning the Gods of Egypt through the time travel gates. Coyle gets trapped in this ever tightening net of mystery and intrigue. Seeking allies and trying to avoid his enemies ( if only he knew who they were) Coyle becomes the unwitting protagonist in an adventure of a lifetime. In fact, make that two lifetimes!


Powers is a splendid writer who keeps the fantastical plot in check, engages the reader and cranks up the pace relentlessly. The book was nominated for several awards including Locus award for best fantasy novel, British Science fiction award an an SF chronicle award. It went on to win the Philip K Dick award.

In Which We Contemplate the Triumvirate That Brought Forth a Movement


Powers, Blaylock and Jeter are friends and no doubt their fevered imagination was fueled by many friendly discussions and debates. Slowly but surely their vision of a mechanized, steam powered alternate history and alternate future seeped into the subculture.

In the well trodden path they created, leapt the two SF heavyweights who had already made their name in Cyberpunk. They collaborated on a seminal novel that lifted steampunk right out of niche into mainstream.

The two authors were William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and their book, The Difference engine. This best selling novel firmly established that Steampunk was here to stay.



The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, published by victor Gollancz in 1990
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, published by victor Gollancz in 1990

The Difference Engine By Bruce Sterling

This alternate history novel set in Victorian England uses many historical figures such as Charles Babbage, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Benjamin Disraeli as well as fictional protagonists. It speculates the success of Babbage's steam driven computers driving Britain at the forefront of industrial revolution. The steam powered Goliaths soon drive forward a revolution in communication and themes such as internet and networking. The brilliant technocrats that bring forth the revolution are indeed in power, marginalizing and suppressing the luddites.

The paths of the three main characters Sybil Gerard, Edward Mallory and Laurence Oliphant

cross persistently as there is a collective search for the mysterious computer punch cards that are said to invoke immense power to those who possess it. The book glorifies the work of 'clackers' ( steampunk hackers) and is a post modern take on the digital revolution in a steampunk setting.

Immensely readable and at the same time thought provoking, The Difference Engine was a mini cultural phenomenon at its release.

In Which You Consider Yourself Thoroughly Intrigued and Seek to Follow the Further Chapters


So there you go denizens of digital earth, you have been now fully indoctrinated into the hallowed echelons of Steampunk. You shall , should you choose to continue this journey, encounter Steampunk in art, in the films, in music and its burgeoning trends in arts and crafts as well as in fashion and beauty.


See Steampunk go from a literary subgenre to a full on pop culture iconic status and become a lifestyle to many aficionados.


So follow me, dear reader. Lets seek beauty in the anachronistic metal marvels ( and the tophats and corsets help too!)


From 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
From 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

© 2012 Mohan Kumar

More by this Author


Comments 22 comments

Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan

The title caught my eye, but I haven't time to read it just now. I've bookmarked it, and voted it interesting. I shall return!


mollymeadows profile image

mollymeadows 4 years ago from The Shire

I read an article about Steampunk fashion recently and was fascinated. If I was still in my 20s I would probably be a devotee, because I'm an Anglophile and love Victoriana. The closest I got to this was reading the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels, but I imagine he puts in an appearance in at least a few of these.


Jayfort 4 years ago

Awesome Hub, Docmo! While not a big fan of Steampunk, to see Steampunk apparatus in films or other media always makes me chuckle at the ingenuity of it all.

Well done, sir, well done!


mperrottet profile image

mperrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

I love science fiction, but have not yet read this genre. I had heard the term, but didn't realize what it meant until reading this wonderful hub. I love the work you've put into this. Will definitely read the next chapter!


painterpyro profile image

painterpyro 4 years ago from Montana

Closet punk. Very nice I will be waiting for the next hub.


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Thanks for this erudite explanation of steampunk, Docmo, It seems like a very interesting place to visit but I'm not certain I want to live there. However, you have made it so intriguing I'm going to find those first three books to read that you mentioned.

BTW, your illustrations are such perfection, they could win an award by themselves.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

I wish i could say that i'd read the mentioned books, but alas, i haven't, but i enjoyed reading your hub. I always learn something new from you Docmo. Thank you..


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

@Jeff Berdnt glad you dropped by and hope you enjoy the hub.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

@mollymeadows - there is a big pop culture movement going on around Steampunk. It is interesting that the recent Sherlock Holmes films also feature aspects of Steampunk in the clothing, devices and weaponry.I am planning to cover aspects of fashion, arts and media around this theme. Thanks for dropping by.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

@Jayfort - Thank you ! I also admire the ingenuity of production designers who come up with ingenious contraptions in films such as Hellboy, Sherlock Holmes, League of Extraordinary Gentleman and even Harry Potter. They all have Steampunk overtones. Appreciate your visit.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

@mperrottet- Thank you for your visit and follow. I have been a scifi fan since I was little and love the speculative aspects of the genre that is mindblowing. I read the Difference Engine several years ago and was blown away by the imagination and alternate history.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

@painterpyro- thank you. I love the way steampunk straddles several themes.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Dear drbj, I know this will pique your interest. The books are certainly worth reading. I do feel 'genre' fiction tends to get marginalised but as highly readable stories go they are all up there with the best. appreciate your visit/ comments!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Dear Ruby, there is so much written word out there it is hard for us to catch it all. Hopefully this served as a taster for the fiction and themes. Thanks for the visit and comments.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 4 years ago from South Africa

First time I hear the title of this genre, Steampunk. But so, everything always have a first time. Beautiful reviews - definitely books I will enjoy. Voted up, well-presented and interesting.


MickeySr profile image

MickeySr 4 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

Docmo ~ there are some of us, of my (baby boomer) generation, who have loved all things steampunk before there was steampunk . . . Ray Harryhausen's Jules Verne adaptations introduced us to the glorious world of Victorian era adventure scientists with films like "Mysterious Island" & "The First Men In The Moon". The whole notion that became 'steampunk' was all about bold men of imagination doing things that couldn't be done yet - the dream was there but the technology had to be fantasied . . . old world gears with the new wonder of steam-power added to the precipice of the future in musings about time & space.

Thanks for the tribute to a whole world within itself of amazing wonder. Have you seen the steampunk laptop Datamancer makes? Google 'steampunk laptop, but, I caution you - you'll want to spend far more for a laptop than you should . . . it is way too cool.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Martie... I have always loved this genre ad it was good to share it with a wider audience.. glad you like the books they are excellent stories in their own merit...


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

MickeySr.. Ray Harryhausen's films are absolute gems, My Dad used to take me to those wonderful mix of science/fantasy and stop motion magic. I also, I think liked the notion of steam drive devices long before I discovered the subgenre. I plan to follow up this series with a steampunk fashion and a steampunk gadget hub. I've seen the laptop on pinterest- awesome. Thanks again for your delightful comments.


rcrumple profile image

rcrumple 4 years ago from Kentucky

Docmo -

I am visiting the realm of which you speak currently as I am revisiting the world of Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I, also, just finished H.G. Wells' "The Food of the Gods...and how...."

I've often thought how marvelous it would be to live in a time like this. Yet, I'm brought back to reality by acknowledging the benefits of modern bathrooms. There are just some things I prefer to the past.

Absolutely beautiful hub and awesome info presented. Up & Awesome & Interesting


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Among my favorite 'retro' science fiction novels : Burroughs and Wells and Verne .. the stalwarts who started it all. Credit to Mary Shelly too. I have written a hub about Edgar Rice Burroughs's 'John Carter of Mars' the Barsoom novels. Glad to find a fellow lover of the past/future. thank you very much, Richard.


NS Whiteside profile image

NS Whiteside 3 years ago from Shorewood, IL

Thanks Docmo for the interesting history on Steam punk. It has helped answer some questions I had on its origins and what defines it as a genre/subgenre.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 3 years ago from UK Author

Thank you for your visit and comments- I'm glad this helped. Much appreciated.

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