There’s no denying where we get our inspiration from. Regardless of whether you’re a top hatted Victorian gentleman strolling through the park on a delightful summer’s evening or if you’re a deep space explorer using a self recycling steam powered quantum engine to travel through the stars, there will be some kind of connection to the Victorian era in your designs.
Where steampunk inspiration begins is an easy one. In fact they’re all quite easy when you think about it, it’s what we do with the information that forges our understanding of steampunk. It starts with the crowning of Queen Victorian on 20th June, 1837. The literary giants of that time are where early steampunk authors drew inspiration from in order to write books that were heavily steeped in Cyberpunk, but with Victorian elements of industry and etiquette.
But is that right? Some people argue that steampunk era begins with the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. Or maybe even by Thomas Savery in 1698, depending on how you view the technology. If that’s true, then the argument must be brought to the table that the very first recorded steam engine was created by a Greek inventor named Hero of Alexandria in 1AD. While the rotary device he invented wasn’t a means of propulsion, is that the beginning of the steam age?
That would be silly and as silly as steampunks are, we’re not THAT silly.
This argument over when the steam engine was discovered is because of the word “steam” at the front of our culture. What people don’t consider is that JW Keter could have used that word to create a tongue-in-cheek name for the novels he and his friends were writing. He could just have easily written the word “Coal” or “Brass”. The word doesn’t appear to have been overly important in the note he wrote, it seems simply chosen as a recognisable medium in the era that the novels were based in.
When mentioned online, it tends to escalate into an argument with statements such as “That’s not steampunk, the steam era didn’t start until 1712 and that’s clearly a shirt from the 1711 spring season.” or “That’s not steampunk, it’s not Victorian!” The need to have this heavy inclusion of a Victorian theme has taken over much of steampunk to the point where anything displayed that doesn’t rely on using the past as inspiration is seen as not steampunk.
Some people suggest that there’s an end to the steampunk age and that is the start of World War I or World War II when Dieselpunk begins. Why be that small minded? I don’t mean that insultingly; why only think that it goes on for less than a hundred years? Why can’t it go on into the far flung corners of the future? If steampunk is an alternate timeline as “The Past that Never Was”, then Dieslpunk and other subcultures are on a different timeline to that. So we don’t have to end at World War II, it’s just our World Wars featured steam powered flying machines, ray guns and goliath cannons.
It’s rare that I agree with GD Falksen on anything, but he has a point that when we refer to the Victorian era, it doesn’t just mean Victorian England, but the years of 1837 – 1901 globally. Sadly, because it’s referred to the Victorian era and not late 19th/early 20th century”, most people seem to think that they can only wear what the British were wearing in the day and ignore other viable options available to them. There are some exceptions. The Americans tend to not pay too much attention to that and American steampunks gloriously embrace the fashions of the Old West that was prevalent at the time. And of course who can forget the splendid styling of Steampunk India?
The actual place where we can start steampunk is hazy at best. It’s unique to your own opinion on the matter and will help forge and mould a character if you have one. Whether you want your steampunk universe to begin at the coronation of Queen Victoria or the advent of steam power in 1AD, the choice is entirely yours. Is there really any point in arguing about it?