Steampunk celebrates the beauty and promise of early technology

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Imagine a world in which the Hindenburg Zeppelin had not become an inferno on landing. A world in which the transistor had never been invented. Where the airplanes that grew out of the First and Second World Wars had never been developed. A world where the steampower, clockwork and the fanciful electrical energy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the wilder inventions of Nikola Tesla were the primary power sources for airships, automatons, clanking vehicles and brass prosthetics and crackpot inventions.

That's the alternative world of steampunk. It's a world frozen in a parallel Victorian era of remarkable, imagined technology. And, it's a sub-genre of science fiction embraced by millions of fans around the world who revel in costuming themselves in corsets, waistcoats and top hats adorned with gears and goggles.

The aesthetic of steampunk is very much influenced by the stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes, especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If you watch the Disney version of that tale, you'll see a design sense that is very much in keeping with the steampunk ethos.

But, I want to talk about the steampunk attitude towards its technology, and the technology itself. 

The actual Victorian era, and the Edwardian period that followed it, was a golden age of invention. The principles of electricity were still being probed, the rays and effects it produced barely understood. It was a vista of possibilities. Steampower was driving factories; the burnished brass and copper of boilers and pistons pumped power into factories, ships and all manner of new inventions.

It was a time when electricity seemed a form of magic and when self-funded gentlemen scientists like Benjamin Franklin, Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestly pushed the boundaries of knowledge as surely as the British Empire conquered the planet.

And, it was a time of visible technology, of crude vacuum tubes, crackling towers of electrical discharge and public displays of X-rays.  

The journal of the Royal Society was full of the discoveries of the photographic process of William Henry Fox Talbot, news of James Watt's steam engine and electrical lighting was just beginning to replace gaslights. Batteries were large, wet and unstable beasts. 

Charles Babbage's mechanical calculator, the difference engine, made computation visible with its thousands of exposed rods, levers and gears. Or, at least, if would have been, had it ever been built. The tolerances of the day made that impossible though a version was created in the 1980s. Early vacuum tubes glowed with visible potential and caught the imagination of amateur scientists around the world.

This is the world steampunk reveres and amplifies. It celebrates the beauty of early technology before it became small, invisible and unfathomable. It loves technology that is beautiful but ungainly, impractical and breathtaking.

But history didn't unfold that way. The airships that held promise were replaced by the dog-fighting bi-planes of the First World War. The electric motor, a Victorian invention, began to replace steam as a principal driver of industry. Electromagnetism, induction and power storage began to be better understood and stuttered towards the commonplace.

It was the invention of core memory and the transistor in 1947 that really began moving technology inside devices. Later integrated circuits turned what used to be visible breadboard shambles of wires, resistors, diodes and capacitors into chips as small as a baby's fingernail.

That is the world we live in now. Technology is no less magical, but far more hidden.

In some ways, in many ways, I wish the world steampunkers imagined were real. It would be great to live in a world in which technology was embraced and enjoyed instead of one where it often is viewed with suspicion, fear and incomprehension. But, that airship has flown.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Image: June Yarham/flickr

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