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Author Topic: What delineates the historic era from which steampunk was derived?  (Read 1453 times)
RJBowman
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« on: March 30, 2015, 11:49:16 pm »

What is the historic era from which steampunk was derived? Obviously the 19th century is a big part of the inspiration, but is there a generally agreed upon cutoff point?

I see a lot of people using vacuum tubes in their props and costumes, which to me signify the 20th century era of electronics beginning in the 1920's. Tesla's important innovations pre-dated vacuum tubes.

The aviatrix is a popular character type, but I associate that type with the 1920's and 1930's; the era of Amelia Earhart.

I would have to classify the film "Metropolis" as a steampunk influence, but that movie was released in 1927.

Doc Smith's "The Skylark of Space" was published in the late 1920's, and I always visualized the characters and equipment as being in that 1920's aesthetic, but I recently found out that the book had been written in 1918, and had been unpublished for a decade, so now my visualization of the book has changed. Is Skylark a steam era science fiction story?

Talking movies, radiotelephony, teardrop streamlined vehicle design, to me seem to be after the era in question, but some might disagree.

Is there, in fact, a date, an event, or a technological innovation that signifies some sort of cutoff?
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« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2015, 12:01:36 am »

Weve talked about this manu times before. You can't really have a hard "cutoff" technology, when we primarily deal in sci-fi and retrofuturism.  If vacuum tubes are chosen aesthetically or literally, it's because the materials and presentation look primitive enough to meld with 19th C technology.  Being retrofuturistic, you can probably incorporate some argument for even nuclear technology (nuclear power is basically just steam technology tied to heat generated by simple decay, afterall).
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« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2015, 12:04:43 am »

There as many cut off there are steampunker. I would personnally say 1790 to 1918.


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« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2015, 12:11:26 am »

Steampunk is not merely alternative history, where you can say that in 1870 history zigged where it should have zagged. It can also include changes not merely in technology but also in the laws of nature themselves. It can be done for any era really, and people do like using different names for each of them. For what people call steampunk it tends to be the victorian era, but there is no specific point in history where you can say things changed.
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« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2015, 01:34:49 am »

Also touched upon before, but even if you do apply a period, I have set it on a case by case basis  according to culture.  The Industrial Revolution arrived at different times to different parts of the world.  For Japan I choose the end of the Edo Era up to the end of the Meiji Era.  For the United States the period will probably coincide with the Victorian Era but end in the Gilded Age.  For Mexico it will be the period between it's war for Independence (1810-1821), and their Revolution (civil war) of 1810.  For Russia it will end in the Bolshevik Revolution, and so on...
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« Reply #5 on: March 31, 2015, 07:21:36 am »

Look at this mess - WORMS EVERYWHERE!  WHO OPENED THE CAN?!   Cheesy


Simple answer - Retro scifi.

Steampunk is not about 'historical' as much as it is about "what if...", meaning we play with ideas set within a loosely defined time period. For most people, Steampunk is a Victorian era based science fiction (both in genre and the lifestyle), generally seen as starting somewhere around the time of Victoria taking the throne, and generally ending at a point no later than the outbreak of WWI. Up until 1914, most of the world remained largely the same as it had in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, save for some obvious technology changes. After the war things had changed in both social and technological senses, so there is something of a clear and defining break between the end of the Steampunk "era" and the beginning of Dieselpunk - though some overlap is arguable.

However, for some it is more Futuristic than Retro. Often the steampunk universe is set in a dystopian future / alternative world, where steampower is once again king in a civilization slowly rebuilding / on the brink of collapse, and a dress style that harks back to an ancient time.  Essentially it is a less 'techy' version of Cyberpunk - of which Steampunk and Cyberpunk have an undeniable link.


An important part of ALL the genres mentioned above, is that they are all very open to interpretation and non are firmly fixed to any specific time period - except perhaps Dieselpunk, which is usually associated with 1914 - 1945 rather than a later period (not that it couldn't, I'm just not aware of any examples).
Steampunk is probably the only genre, lifestyle and aesthetic that has such a wide definition, infact it is so wide that it is almost impossible to encapsulate it into a defined 'this is steampunk' statement... Steampunk is unique to everyone - they all have their own interpretation of timelines and events, yet somehow we can all recognize the result and accept it as fitting with our own interpretations. I can't think of any other counter culture that has such varied membership.


So yes - there is a generally agreed cut-off date to the 19th C based steampunk, 1914. BUT it does not prevent a steampunk world happening anytime after that date, so technically NO, there isn't a specific cut-off date for "Steampunk"

Hope that clears that up for you...  Grin
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« Reply #6 on: March 31, 2015, 10:07:22 pm »

There as many cut off there are steampunker.

This, only with far more words and possibly a diagram or two. Tongue

For me, the technological changes are not more important than the sociocultural changes the technology influenced, and there are no sharp cutoffs. The fantasy can run through time in any direction (including perpendicular). The historical reference period, on the other hand, for me has its three-sigma points (between which 99% of the influence is found) somewhere around Thos. Newcomen's atmospheric engine and the end of the First World War (that's the one called "First," not the one that was first,) with tails extending beyond Heron of Alexandria in one direction and through today in the other.

Dieselpunk would have its three-sigmas around the beginning of World War One and the end of World War Two, while Atompunk would be centred between the first Manhattan Project test shot and the Apollo 11 landing.

I once compared Steampunk to a rolling landscape where each of us can see a different part of the land, and many of us see mostly the same landscape as others around us but no two of us see exactly the same scenery because no two of us can occupy exactly the same vantage point. The paragraphs above describe what I see from my vantage point, and I offer them here for reference only.
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« Reply #7 on: April 01, 2015, 03:51:52 am »

To me it starts in the 1800s, but goes as far into the future as you want.  It is just an alternate future.
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« Reply #8 on: April 01, 2015, 04:40:45 am »



 To throw more coal into the boiler , I have read that it  start n the late 1700s in the industrial revolution and  traverses time up to the post ww1 era.

 Through the Georgian, Regency , Victorian and Edwardian times back through to Georgian again...
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« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2015, 02:43:09 pm »

If an inventor in 1873 built a functional time machine and used it to go backwards or forwards in time beyond his current century would it cease to be steampunk?
When he goes back in time it becomes clockpunk then going forward it becomes dieselpunk and so on. This is one of the lesser known problems with time travel and falls somewhere between the 'what if you do something in the 'past' that stops you being born' and choosing which tense to use to describe your adventures as the present becomes the 'past future possible' issues.
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« Reply #10 on: April 02, 2015, 05:54:29 am »

I don't think you can define it...once you can, it can be destroyed...Wink But that can be said of any art form
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« Reply #11 on: April 02, 2015, 07:57:21 am »

Although most people I know tend to associate Steampunk with a Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic there are also things like the 'Pax Britannia' books that are set in an alternate 20th Century where the Sun never set on the British Empire and Queen Victoria is basically a robot.

I don't think you can prescribe any set time periods.
You could say it starts with the evolution of Steam power but in fiction who is to say that it wasn't developed earlier.
Imagine if the Roman Empire had developed it.
Centurions in goggles.
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« Reply #12 on: April 02, 2015, 12:47:50 pm »

It's probably easier to define the end of the period by what it is not, once Art Deco starts to influence the aesthetic (c.1920) it's moving away from the core of the Steampunk aesthetic.  But the Machine Age (1880-1945) continues beyond this and elements of raw industrial aesthetic can still be drawn into Steampunk without appearing overly anachronistic if selected carefully.

Steampunk is full of anachronism though, the airship/zeppelin era begins very late in the Steampunk timeline and it's heyday is firmly into the Art Deco era and aesthetic.  It needs a couple of decades splicing into the conventional timeline between Victoria's death and WW1/Art Deco in order to gain a plausible period of time as a Steampunk technology.
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« Reply #13 on: April 02, 2015, 01:52:38 pm »

I see a lot of people using vacuum tubes in their props and costumes, which to me signify the 20th century era of electronics beginning in the 1920's. Tesla's important innovations pre-dated vacuum tubes.

Guthrie observed thermionic emissions back in 1873 and again by Edision in 1883. The latter filed a patent in 1884. If the Queen had lived for a few more years, she would have witnessed the invention and production of the modern thermionic valve.
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« Reply #14 on: April 02, 2015, 03:21:34 pm »

There is still a company building steam traction engines in the UK, 'Wi Fi' is developed from the ideas of Tesla (and you can now charge a phone or 'tablet' without wires), so when is today the past?

Any 'hard and fast' cut off point is open to challenge, especially given the 'visionary' nature of some in the accepted steampunk era....Jules Verne wrote of things that wouldn't happen until the 1960's like space flight, should his writings be discounted?

I find it better to base my creations on general principles than specific dates. Others may differ ad I like the fact that they are free to as it makes for some interesting conversations (better than discussing the weather).
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« Reply #15 on: April 02, 2015, 08:24:32 pm »


I think that there are two ways of looking at this. On one hand there is what you might call 'soft' (not pejorative)  steaminess which deals primarily with the outward appearance of things and thus tends to focus on things like fashion and decorative design and would tend to encompass things like illustration, clothing, theater, cinema, games etc.

On the other hand is 'hard' SP which looks at the actual science and technology and deals more with the alternative history aspect. I think a  good way to get to grips with this is to think in terms of the sort of technologies that, on a small scale at least, are withing the grasp of a single person. For example it is perfectly possible for somebody, with sufficient effort and application,  to construct  a working model steam engine in a shed pretty much from scratch, not easy but possible. On the other hand it's not really realistic to construct a working microprocessor computer with the same sort of resources.

I would suggest that steampunk covers the sorts of technologies which it would be conceivable for single person or small group to recreate form scratch using basic raw materials in their lifetime, given sufficient knowledge and, by extension, the cutoff point is where a given technology requires so much in the way of resources and infrastructure that this is no longer possible.
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« Reply #16 on: April 02, 2015, 10:57:11 pm »


On the other hand it's not really realistic to construct a working microprocessor computer with the same sort of resources.




Actually, that is slowly becoming a realistic possibility. There are people working on the basics right now - the talented Jeri Ellsworth has been experimenting with 'DIY' transistors for several years:

Transistor fabrication: so simple a child can do it | Hackaday

Also there is this recent project by 'zaphod':
4 bit computer built from discrete transistors • Hackaday.io

It's really just a matter of time before somebody has the skills and time to merge those two projects.  Wink

As technology advances in everyday life, we are slowly gaining tools and supplies needed to do quite advanced engineering. Only ten years ago, making a modern type silicon transistor at home would have been near impossible. It's still difficult, but you can get everything required via the internet.


So what has the above got to do with steampunk?... 

I would suggest that steampunk covers the sorts of technologies which it would be conceivable for single person or small group to recreate form scratch using basic raw materials in their lifetime, given sufficient knowledge and, by extension, the cutoff point is where a given technology requires so much in the way of resources and infrastructure that this is no longer possible.



Well, the process of originally advanced engineering slowly filtering down to the home experimenter is a fundamental part of the Victorian explosion in scientific understanding. A great number of things were discovered by 'gentleman scientists' who were not formally trained, they were essentially the same as modern day "hackers" and 'makers'. Nothing has really changed, except we have more advanced technology to play with - even biotechnology can be experimented with at home. Everyone reading this is using a device that is thousands of times more powerfull than the computers used to land men on the moon...

So where do we draw the line in regards to Steampunk?

I say we do need some form of limits, otherwise it could be argued that 'modern' computers are steampunk - which I think deviates too far into the Cyberpunk genre. But at the same time we DO have computers in steampunk...
Without some form of artificial limitations, what 'is' and 'is not' Steampunk becomes a difficult thing to work out.
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« Reply #17 on: April 03, 2015, 05:07:17 am »

A lot of Steampunk books I've read use 'Babbage Thinking Engines' in place of modern computers. They are obviously a lot larger but often used alongside/powered by something like Aethertech which enhances them. Retro-fantasy?
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« Reply #18 on: April 04, 2015, 05:52:27 am »

I want to see a micro-mechanical computer grown from a silicon wafer, and also the excuse as to why we would build such a thing.
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« Reply #19 on: April 04, 2015, 06:04:24 am »

I want to see a micro-mechanical computer grown from a silicon wafer, and also the excuse as to why we would build such a thing.

It would withstand ionizing radiation far better...?
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« Reply #20 on: April 04, 2015, 06:26:44 am »

I want to see a micro-mechanical computer grown from a silicon wafer, and also the excuse as to why we would build such a thing.

It would withstand ionizing radiation far better...?

My thoughts precisely. Perhaps an inter-stellar navigational computer requirement?
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« Reply #21 on: April 05, 2015, 09:48:04 pm »

There have been some development projects around MEMS for non-volatile storage, like "comb" memory. So yeah, wafer-fab technologies for essentially mechanical devices too small to be seen properly by the naked eye. A full-tilt processor, even the equivalent of the old Z-80, would be a bit more challenging, however.

But this leads me to my real point, one which seems to have escaped the small portion of the population which wanders around pointing out that some Steampunk thing or other is "not period": it's almost always easier to go backward in time and say that something could have been built much earlier than it is to invent the thing from scratch. This gives Steampunk huge latitude, in my view, since we are using our imaginations, not just our history books.

For example, it's easy enough to say that, but for boilers which had an unfortunate tendency to fail catastrophically at around 20 p.s.i., the whole Newcomen business could have been skipped, and the steam age could otherwise, within some limits, have kicked off before the American War of Independence. So, sure, in a timeline where someone worked out earlier how to produce large shapes in high-grade mild steel, and had the range of machine tools needed, the War of 1812 could have mostly involved iron-clad steam-frigates. It's only in our timeline where that took until the Civil War.

Likewise, as soon as something like naphtha and rubber or gutta-percha were available in any quantity, someone could have made quite a start in airships, since acids and scrap-metal for hydrogen were available pretty early. And in the timeline where the steam-engine is well-established in the Regency era, the internal combustion engine would be just around the corner, possibly using all that really cheap, nasty gin they had so much of.

Somewhere, in someone else's Europe, perhaps the Swiss or Dutch financial houses heard about Babbage's plans, and sponsored the advent of general-purpose computation in the Age of Empires.

So really, things can be pretty flexible. People who want to declare exact periods generally display nothing but inadequate research and a limited imagination. Do your homework, and then go crazy.
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RJBowman
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« Reply #22 on: April 06, 2015, 03:42:28 am »

Microcode:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcode

Something that I learned in college computer science courses; as a shortcut to building a CPU, there is sometimes a sub-machine code interpreter. This allows the engineer to build a simpler processor that performs idiosyncratic instructions, then use these idiosyncratic instructions to interpret the more reasonable machine instructions. There is a trade-off of speed in exchange for simplicity of engineering.

This is hardcore computer science esoterica; not covered in regular programming courses, but if y had to build a useful computer from mechanical parts, a microcode architecture would probably save you a lot of headaches.
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« Reply #23 on: April 06, 2015, 03:15:17 pm »

Long story short; what has been, vs. what ought to have been...Wink
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« Reply #24 on: April 10, 2015, 01:41:43 pm »

It is the era before monkey butlers were replaced by household robots, when heavier-than-air flying machines were barely feasible contraptions appealing only to daredevils, when an intrepid individual could still create a mechanical device that would revolutionize society and render war obsolete. When we could explore the unknown parts of the world and discover undreamed-of riches and ancient civilizations. A simpler time, with gears glued onto it.
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