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Steampunk Goes Mainstream

Updated on November 15, 2014

A future inspired by a past that never was

Lace up your corsets and grab your goggles ladies and gentlemen - 'cause Steampunk is gearing up to go mainstream soon.

If you've never heard of Steampunk, it's a retro-sci-tech mashup - spanning the genres of literature, art, games, jewelry, fashion, movies, music & technology, (and the generations) - and it's time has come.

IBM thinks so. They've been watching the blogs, and social media and chatter about this Victorian-inspired steam-tech counterculture skyrocketed in the past few years. They're predicting steampunk to (ironically) go retail in a big way this year.

For the clincher, check out the recently released book 'Vintage Tomorrows', co-authored by Historian James H. Carrott and Futurist Brian David Johnson, which explores the real-world relationship between a past that never happened and the future it could inspire.

Photo: Steampunk Couple by steevithak [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] on Flickr.


An alternate 19th century

Steampunk is in an extraordinary league of it's own

Imagine an alternate reality where today's technology was developed in a Victorian-era 19th century context. With awe-inspiring contraptions made of smooth-grained mahogany, rugged leather, brass fittings, and powered by steam, tubes and gears...lots of gears.

A world where individuals ventured bravely down their own road, bypassing the industrial revolution and following their own vision and indeed, using their own know-how to equip themselves for the journey.

Visionary science fiction writers and illustrators of the 19th century opened our minds to the "what if" possibilities of technology long before we developed the capabilities.

It's that kind imagination that sparks each new generation of discovery and progress. The Industrial Revolution is winding down. What does steampunk tell us about where we go from here?

Photo: Steam museum - Swindon[CC BY- 2.0] on Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Verne - visionary - Fiction is getting closer to fact

Graphic by LifeAhead
Graphic by LifeAhead

Jules Verne's science fiction novel "Mysterious Island" was published in 1874. One of Verne's most quoted phrases from the book - Water will be the coal of the future may be close to becoming a reality.

Recent technological advances in extracting hydrogen from water shows promise for enabling us to transition from fossil fuels to clean, CO2-free energy from water, solar and wind.

Steampunk exhibition - Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford.

Like many previous counterculture movements, steampunk's roots can be found in literature and the visual arts.

The Steampunk aesthetic is beautiful, tactile, imaginative, and evocative of a time long-past when makers hand-crafted the things they needed to suit their specific purpose. Plastic and polymers may suit the manufacturing processes required to mass produce cell phones and iPads, but they lack the charm, elegance and individuality of hand-made devices.

And it's not just a visual thing, it's language, imagination and individualism - all wrapped in a retro-futuristic mindset.

Neverwas Haul - Steampunk on the move

Neverwas haul (CC BY 2.0 By *christopher*
Neverwas haul (CC BY 2.0 By *christopher*

This wild and wonderful curiosity is a self-propelled, 3-story Victorian house named "Neverwas Haul". Built simply to bring pleasure and a smile to Burning Man in 2006, this vehicle was imagined by Shannon O'Hare and built by crew of twenty - most of them long on enthusiasm and short on skills.

Neverwas Haul has become a steampunk icon and a regular feature of Maker Faires and Burning Man in the Nevada desert each summer.

To many, designing and building a vehicle just because it defies logic and reason is crazy. But you can't help but look at this mobile marvel, built by inexperienced hands' as an inspiration from a creative and engineering perspective. It's an impressive mix of art, mechanics and steampunk culture that will inspire others in the future.

And I'm pretty sure that's the point of it.

Photo: Neverwas Haul by *christopher* [CC BY-2.0] on Flickr.

The one rule...

"If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong"

- Cherie Priest

Vintage Tomorrows - Imagining a Victorian-inspired future

Who's in a better position to discuss how our past can impact our future than a historian and a futurist?.

Co-authors, James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson take us back to the roots of the steampunk counterculture in this fascinating and insightful new book. Steampunk, inspired by a Jules Verne or HG Wells retro-tech view of the future has long been coursing through the visual arts, literature, motion pictures, clothing fashions, and games for several decades. In our new connected world, it's rapidly building a head of steam through social media, the maker movement, and Conventions & Faires.

James & Brian interview genre experts William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Margaret Atwood and of Cory Doctorow to get their thoughts on the steampunk vision and what may lay ahead as technology advances.

Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology
Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology
The time is right for this entertaining and enlightening book, as we chart our course through the rest of the 21st century.

The Counterculture - It's been bubbling under the surface for decades

Steampunk Fashion CC BY-SA 2.0 By steevithak
Steampunk Fashion CC BY-SA 2.0 By steevithak

What really captures my interest about steampunk is the time and place of it's rising interest within the context of recent world events. The continuing economic uncertainty stemming from the Great Recession, political extremism leading to gridlock, rampant unemployment and social unrest, and the perils of a changing climate are all very front of mind challenges facing us today. The digital communication revolution is a powerful accelerant of global change, and enables a vast re-thinking of the trajectory we've been following.

We look to the past for clues to where we're heading and we only need to look back to the 1960s to see the impact that a counterculture can have once it bubbles to the surface and enters the mainstream. The American youth of the sixties protested the Vietnam war, and advocated for peace, love, civil rights, gay rights, women's rights and recreational drugs. While the hippie movement only lasted a decade, it made it's mark on society and our world would be much different today had it never happened.

While goggled steampunkers are not poised to stage sit-ins on Wall Street, or take to the streets in mass protests, a lasting impact of the movement will likely manifest itself in ways we can't yet fully imagine.

We are living in interesting times indeed.

Steampunk for sale - Artists & makers

Steampunk Desktop CC BY-SA 2.0 By vonslatt
Steampunk Desktop CC BY-SA 2.0 By vonslatt

While it may seem like this is mostly a distraction or weekend pastime, for some, steampunk is their business. Writers, artists, musicians, fashion designers and makers are creating new works and getting paid for doing what they love to do.

One of my favorite technology makeovers is turning a functioning computer into a retro masterpiece that would look perfectly natural on a victorial-era desk. Richard R. Nagy - aka Datamancer - has turned his love of antique restoration and his artistic and technical skills into a high-profile business building "retro-Victorian"-themed computers and peripherals and marketing his creations online. If you want to get some DIY info on how to make your own steampunk stuff check out, Jake Von Slatt's, Steampunk Workshop.

Photo: Steampunk Desktop by vonslatt [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] on Flickr.

As for Retro-futuristic artwork, I just can't get enough of the Retropolis Travel Bureau. Amazing imagination, art and captions.

Beautifully Illustrated Books - Nourish your imagination

This retro-futuristic alternate reality makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. Like wandering through an old workshop, one can't help being drawn to the details and functionality of these fantastical steam-powered contraptions, and wonder how different a time and place it must have been.

The real difference being, of course, that it never actually was.


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