The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am still a mere neophyte within the forum, so forgive me if I am bringing up old topics that have been thoroughly discussed already.  I have been dabbliing in the creation of steampunk machinery, particularly a computer keyboard, sunglasses, an iPhone case.  I believe I started on the path when my wife and daughter took a steampunk jewelry class and when I discovered what steampunk was, I realized that I had been steampunk all my life.  A very welcome discovery and an explanation of my fetish for top hats.


I have just opened a store on Etsy to offer my wares and services for the creation of iPhone, iPod and other sorts of phone and player cases.  As well as the sunglasses and a few other things I will be putting up.  It is called Nautilus Steamworks.  I would be very much obliged if you wish to visit the shop and give advice or ideas.  However, be that as it may, it is not the reason I am posting.


In gradually exploring the other shops selling steampunk items, I have been pondering the emergence of certain symbols in the genre.  As a novelist and creator of fictional worlds, it interests me how the steampunk universe has evolved as a sort of collective fantasy.  Of course, the meaning of "steampunk" has been discussed from every angle in these hallowed pages, so it is not my intention to engage in that topic generally.  Rather, it is the significance of chronometers that caught my attention.  In steampunk jewelry, the use of parts from pocket watches and clocks has, alas, become almost cliché.  Along with old keys from manual typewriters, watch parts and movements reflect a love of intricate old machinery from the pre-computer age.  Steampunk draws on technology from the nineteenth century into the twentieth through about WWI.  Its fascination with airships and mechanized warfare, ray guns, and gruesome tampering with living beings comes very largely from the works of Mr. H. G. Wells -- a cousin of mine, by the way. 


There are various points in history from which alternative developments are extrapolated.  The web comic "Girl Genius," which is a particular favorite of mine, draws its Gaslamp Fantasy themes from Mr. Wells and Miss Shelley.  Frankenstein (and perhaps a bit of the Island of Doctor Moreau) flowers into the "constructs" of that fictional world and its general domination by "mad science."  Airships and warring states from Mr. Wells other works predicting aerial warfare.  There may well be a thought to Monsieur Verne's "Robur the Conquerer" and "Clipper of the Skies" also.  The seminal "Difference Engine" extrapolated quite a different world from the analytical engine of Mr. Babbage.  The extrapolations are more or less distopian or humorous, depending on the creator's mood.


When it comes to clothes and jewelry, however, steampunk takes off from reference points that draw together Victorian fashion with Victorian engineering (including airships and rayguns from Victorian science fiction).  I find the wearing of the corset outside the clothes rather than as an undergarment, fascinating, and for more reasons than one.  A corset is not a very complex machine, perhaps, but to function properly it is a very sophisticated construction. The corset was a symbol of male control over women in its time and after being rejected by women.  It symbolizes the male desire to master nature and to perfect her.  It symbolizes the idea of containment and imperviousness that pervades the culture of the time, and is still alive and well in all of our mechanized mobile suits.  The man of steel, impenetrable was until very recently accepted as the only true image of manliness.  The woman, controlled, and graceful, with a shape like an hourglass, carried some of this idea of mastery over nature into male-dominance in society.  Long skirts and corsets were quite effective in preventing women from doing much of anything very energetic.


The corset worn outside and used as an article of sexual attraction, displays a woman's pride in her figure, and as it is a counter-cultural choice put up against the tee-shirt and the sports-bra, it becomes a symbol of self-control and uprightness, freely chosen.  Oddly taken in our current cultural context, the corset makes steampunk girl's look like "loose women" when they are far tighter than the ordinary girls running about in tanktops and bikinis.  The tightness and looseness metaphor perhaps has something to do with bolts or screws.


In any event, I find myself yearning for steampunk accessories that look like plausible machines, not ones that just have a lot of cogs and watch parts slapped together.  No offence intended -- there are some very good creations along those lines too.  But the symbolic resonance of the parts of a dismantled timepiece is very different than the resonance of a steampunk gismo that pretends to be something whole and functional.  Watch parts may symbolize time or even time travel on one level; but they also carry the idea of something broken and gone, without function except as adornment.


Besides these ponderous thoughts, I get a little peeved at jewelers and even seamstresses and milliners who slap on the label "steampunk" just because they know that will lure in steampunk customers.  I feel  a bit betrayed when so little thought and real creativity has gone into an item.  Still, I do realize some of this is driven by the availability of parts.  As soon as steampunk jewelry took off, whoever had been collecting old watches realized an antique dealer's dream: a lucrative market in old watches that don't run.

Yet, we wish our imaginary Empire, our cogwheel cosmos, to actually work.  At least we want to be able to believe.  If there is a story behind any item of steampunk creation, that, in my opinion, makes it truly compelling.  Not even a whole story, but just a plausible bit of backstory as we devise for our characters to make it seem to fit into our collectively imagined universe.


My pardon for writing to you at such great length.  I hope that this missive finds you well and in good spirits.


Yours very truly,


Dr. Nautilus Cholmondeley


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Sir, your missive is welcome.  I too find frustrating the emphasis on the superficial at the expense of the functional, as one of the things that charms and inspires me most about the actual historical era was the way that even ordinary devices were built to last and be beautiful.  Today we have many things that are neither (cheap VCRs, mass-produced clothing), some that are one or the other (Apple computers, concrete buildings), and very very few that are both.


So while there is an element of the theatrical to my steampunk, I'm not looking to make, wear, or use costumes and props (except when specifically playing a role for fun).  I want clothing and equipment, and my standards for both (whether steamy or no) are pretty high.  I have no scorn for those who prefer a more light-hearted approach, but my tastes have long run towards the durable and the well-crafted, and it was that which brought me to steampunk, rather than the other way around. 


(By the way, good sir, if you ever feel the need to provoke yourself, and to have a rueful laugh, I recommend a perusal of the "Not Remotely Steampunk" category at  The site owner finds items on Etsy which have been mis-tagged with that label, and makes fun of them.)

"Not Remotely Steampunk" is wonderful!  I do have that octopus pin that has become so ubiquitous.  Some of those modifications of the pin/pendant are embarrassingly lame -- especially the one with watch works stuck on the tentacles.  But, still, the octopus as an iconic symbol is "remotely" steampunk.  Here's how:

Octopus is similar to Giant Squid which is in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is generally considered a steampunk touchstone.

Problem is, of course, that it is not the squid that is steampunkish in Leagues.  It's the submarine boat.  Logical connection, but tenuous.  I wear my octopus on my tophat because I like cephalopods (not surprising, considering my Christian name.  Thanks mother dearest!).


Some of the other examples cited on Regretsy show that vendors are taking up tags suggested by the Great Machine without really having a clue what they mean.  "Steampunk" comes up as a key alongside "retro" I'll wager.  There is a level of awareness of steampunk among the populace that is tremendously superficial -- vaguely heard the term... something to do with retro fashions...


My feelings are not so much that our machinery should actually work with moving parts and all (this is a high goal that I am sure we all share) but that they plausibly appear to be actual machines.  Jewelry walks a fine line between being gagetry and being a fashion accessory.  So, really it is unfair of me to disparage jewelry that "doesn't work."  I did not mean to do so.  Rather, it seems to me that jewelry, to be really creative, needs to do more than put a cufflink back or an earring hanger onto the defunct workings of a mechanical watch.  Similarly, an iPhone case needs to be more than just leather with a few cogs tooled into it -- at least to pass my steampunkk sniff test. (The test is: when I look at it does id make me sniff.)

Dr. Cholmondeley,

Your iPhone case, sir, is a wonder, but alas, out of my price-range.

I do agree with your point of view on how our steampunk machinery should, to some degree, actually work, but there are arguments on this board (see the NERF gun threads) that we are merely imitating an alternate reality, not actually inventing one, so whether an item actually works or not is a minor quibble.


As for women's dress, women's corsets in this day and age are much more comfortable to wear than their vintage ancestors (I speak from experience) and as the ability of women to move in them is no longer very restricted along with women's ability to bare ankles (scandalous!) and thighs and bosoms (mostly) is no longer taboo, women have embraced the externally worn corset to indicate their recapture of it as a fashion statement freely chosen and not as a socially moralistic requirement.


Madonna's fashion sense from the 80's helped. 

Thank you for the kind appreciation of the Omnithaumic Electro-Panopticon.  I hope to have some for sale in the near future that will not be quite so expensive.  Mine is almost excessively ornate.  People look at the back of it and you can see their eyes glaze over with sensory overload.  It is amusing when they know nothing of steampunk but something of engineering because you can hear the gears shifting in their heads trying to put this machinery into some sort of real-world context, to bring it into their world by identifying all the parts without the use of their imagination. 


It really is amazing how many people seem to have forgotten how to use their imagination.  Or, pehaps, I should say that they no longer recognize when they are using their imagination or confronted with the imaginary, but mistake it for solid facts.  For example, in political speeches.  The political speech (if you will permit me to continue this digression for a moment) is a great form of Victorian culture.  Speeches in the Commons lasting two or three hours until the wee hours of the morning were standard, and were reported in the newspapers for all to read.  But in the Victorian Age, one feels perhaps that more people recognized rhetoric for what it was:  art.  Oration my be seen as a branch of literature. Not intended to be factual, but to persuade through artful language.  In the 21st century (perhaps because our schools no longer teach Cicero), the commoner, and even the gentleman will so often take such oratory for the presentation of facts.  Pity.


As for the externalized corset as feminine attire, I was given a new insight into this through a link off the Regretsy "This is Not Steampunk" page referenced above by the esteemed Dr. Dayton.  A link to the works of Kady Cross there and its content struck me with a sartorial epiphany, to wit, that the corset on display can also carry the connotation of a bullet-proof vest! 

While I do think the exoskeletonized corset is attractive and sexually appealing, I may also note that it fills a place in ladies attire that is occupied in gentlemen's attire by the waistcoat.  Wearing a waistcoat is one of the marks of a gentleman, as distinct from common workers.  Of course, many working class men wear waistcoats (or did in the Victorian Age) but without a coat, or as a sign of their somewhat liminal status as above the common man and an aspiring gentleman of sorts (I think of bankers, policemen, et. al.).  Though this distinction was never so made in America where the very concept of a gentleman as a distinct class went out the window with the Revolution. Pity.


But corsets.  Yes, I appreciate what you say about Mistress Madonna.  Freely chosen fashion statment, to be sure.  Yet it was a fashion in days of the Empress too.  The problem was that women weren't designing them and got a bit silly about the desireable size of the waist.  The "hourglass" shape went somewhat out of control in the hoop skirt direction as well.  I think of that wonderful scene in the moving picture "Gone With the Wind" in which all the young ladies have to take off their garments, losen their corsets and lie down for an hour, just to keep going (especially in the heat of Georgia!)

I think the clock bits are less about time and more about clockwork machines.


Clockpunk is closely related to steampunk and overlaps with it in many stories.  Girl genius is a good example of this.


The clock, with its complex array of gears, was once the height of technology.  Other machines that use clock gears, such as early windup toys, are sometimes called clockwork machines.  Clockpunk envisions a science based on clockwork gears.  Sometimes it has a Victorian feel to it, but it can also be done with a renaissance flavor.

Thank you very much for the exposition of clockpunk.  I had heard the term and wondered what it was distinct from steampunk.  I have never separated the two.  Clockwork mechanisms and the steam powered mechanisms of cogs and flywheels both seem essential parts of the steampunk aesthetic to me.  It seems to me that in the world of steampunk the steam engine mechanism has been considerably miniaturized so that very small machines can run on that power.  The power coming from a spring or from an engine deriving its energy from heated water are both fascinating.

Very true about Girl Genius.  Although there is an alarming amount of electricity flying around, it is the clockwork clanks that are the really original and wonderful part of the world.  The term "clank" is sure to be in the dictionary one day.



About the wearing of just random cogs and gears placed on clothes, I was actually thinking about that.

There was a point in time where mercenaries existed and would wear their pay as jewelry and metal chains.

Least by decorating with random gears we've always got ready and accessible spare parts for emergency repairs.

Dear Sir

I cannot overstate my delight in you raising this topic. Despite my inherent cynicm regardithe finding of hidden symbolism in the mundane, I do believe that steampunk is awash in symbolism and unspoken emotion. However, while I do agree with your assessment of the corset, I'm not entirely convinced about the cog. I feel that the cog is analogous go the classic steampunk goggles in that it identifies you as a memeber of a specific group or counter-culture. It is something that differentiates one from people dressing in out of date clothes. The same goes for the use of the standard steampunk palette of leather, copper and brass. While these are undoubtedly materials used, steel and iron was just as important then as it is today. Indeed one could scoff at the idea of Eiffel building a copper tower (however the great lady in New York , another of Eiffel's projects was indeed copper clad from memory).

Regardless of my opposition to your interpretation of the symbolism of the cog, I do agree that the broken mechanisms send quite the wrong message, one counter to the ideals that have attracted me to steampunk in the first place. Indeed form and function appears to be considered as equal partners when one looks back (admittedly with rose colored glasses, but that's sort of the point). The rapid progression in technology, that really started with what I like to think of as "tele" technologies (telephone, automobiles, effective air transport, wireless, industrialistion, ie technologies that reduce time and distance) has only accelerated with the digital age giving almost every item one owns a short discrete lifespan. Before these inventions, despite rapid progress, one was more likely to hold onto minor technical marvels for many years as they could be cherished for years. Artisans therefore could take the time to create something that combined form and function. This is one reason that I prefer functional steampunk. It symbolizes the care taken to create something special. However, the same spirit of creativity and desire for the aesthetic lie with people sewing non-functional gears to their outfits. This is their invention, their creation and is their work of art. However if you want to draw symbolism into it, I suppose one could suppose that the disconnected cog represent the value of the individual within the machine, while displaying that the steampunk considers himself to stand apart from today's trends (isn't part of the machine).
I was also struck by your comment of your realization that you were always steampunk. I can relate, and am sure that others share this feeling. Always a student of the past, a fan of science fiction and an admirer of the better aspects of the Victorian age, the discovery of steampunk as a genre was almost a shock to me. As a child, reading Enid Blyton books I have always held in wonder the secret devices using ancient technologies and imagined turn of the century technology unlocking some secret, intricate mechanism. That said, I can't call myself a steampunk. It is something that suits me, not the other way around.

Finally, I would be both interested and horrified to find symbolism in goggles. Afterall we all know why we wear them: the look (and here I'm paraphrasing) "friggen cool"

In hope that my post was coherent and a worthwhile addition. Unfortunately Im posting this with my (by now very obsolete) iPhone, and can only see a small fraction of my post at a time.

Yours faithfully

 I have always seen steampunk as an art movement...a revival of those older aesthetics...the most basic summary to explain steampunk...but it goes deeper in my understanding.

 I discovered steampunk a few year back when I was already into vintage fashion and the ideals of the dandy and bohemian. What attracted me to steampunk is how I found the arena to combine my childhood fascinations...that of history(military) and science fiction.

 Coming from a fine art and creative fashion persepctive I see how the punk creates the creative foundation. The DIY ethos that extends to technology in this "art movement". Despite Jetters creation of the word steampunk, there is no real single origin. Jetter was a cyberpunk writer who very turned the perspective around with this steampunk to name a few other writers. It is that that develops the improved ethos of this punkesque movement.

 I am not in the technological element. I am more into art, design and fashion aspects. But I always maintain that steampunk has little without the mechanics, engineers, tinkerers and back alley inventors. To me steampunk is not neccessarily reviving a certain period of time, but to extract those archaic ideas for our modern world, integrating the old with the new. With it we celebrate the relationship between human and machine....HR Giger is one of those contemporary aged artists who does this well philosophically (example). Objectively we have individuals like yourself who contributes to this aesthetic to challenge the mainstream design of minimalism, aero dynamism and the cacoon. Not that I want to purge such aesthetics away and condemn them as merely aged and obsolete...but to integrate Babbage, Morris and Verne (examples) into our modern world. That old world that we tried to eradicate with modern living until people like Fred Dibnah maintained the glory of what was our industrial past.


 We are democratising art in this way. This is the very essence of steampunk in my humbled perspective.

Nicely put!  I agree entirely.  Mr. Craven you make several excellent points.  One of the reasons steampunk is so interesting to me is that it is a fashion and art movement as well as one in literature.  The two things are different and yet have some common roots.  The Modernists wanted to throw out all things Victorian and make everything sleek and streamlined.  That can be a cool aesthetic too, but it gets away from the machinery underneath the skin.  And that is where the corset on the outside and the exposed cogs and clockwork comes in.  It is a different kind of reverence for the machine, one that keeps men and women firmly in control of it.  The Modernist aesthetic led to robots.  The steampunk aesthetic is a celebration of human ingenuity, not the loss of humanity to a superior machine-race.




Of course, even then railroads were introduced, a lot of people thought it was  a terrible thing and very frightening.  Not just because of the noise and smoke, but because it changed people's world.  Villagers in England and elsewhere, found suddenly that they had fast access to the centers of culture.  People could come into London from the whole country to see the Great Exhibition.  So there is always this element of fear that machines will "take over" somehow.  You see that expressed in Stirling and Gibson's "The Difference Engine."


The "punk" aspect is rebellious individualism, but in a sense "punk" is used ironically when combined with steam instead of "cyber."  It is not always a distopian vision of a world in which humans have been mechanized.  One of the things I find intriguing about the Victorian Age was that right next to the industrial revolution there was Spiritualism and an intense interest in "higher planes" of spiritual evolution, the persistence of life into the afterlife, and so on.  It is only in the 20th century that technology seems to become soulless.  Has anyone else read the short story "Steam Punch" -- it is a wonderful example of the vision of the robot  becoming human.  But notable in that it is not the other way around -- humans becoming cyborgs or whatever.  That part of steampunk does not interest me so much -- the steam cyborg bit.


I also agree wholeheartedly with the beginnings of steampunk's ethos in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the creations of Morris and Babbage (and interesting juxtaposition).  Looking at Verne's and Wells's politics is rather interesting too.  There is a lot of rebellion against imperialism in a character like Captain Nemo, and a good satire of megalomaniacs in Robur the Conqueror.  Yet, both are creative and engineering geniuses.  Mad scientists maybe, but in Nemo's case sympathetic, and without the fatal flaws of Victor Frankenstein for example, as another, earlier touchstone for steampunk.

I like the idea of the cog out of the machine, freed as it were, as a symbol of individual freedom from "the Machine." 


But now you tempt me sorely to explicate the symbolism of goggles.  They can go at least two ways: to evoke the spirit of early aviation (or even motorcars) or to suggest the presence of danger whether in the laboratory or the technological battlefield -- the blast goggles or protective eyewear.  Yes, of course they look cool.  But there again, I do think they have become a symbol of belonging to the movement and not particularly functional.  They are an ornament for hat or neckwear, or when worn on the eyes, lend a certain intimidating aspect and mad scientist panache.

 I must say, Verne's and Wells' literature I found to be gothic. Historically Gothic literature is huge in the history of novel writing. And was the fashion throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. To me the victorian times and the industrial revolution always came across as gothic. You look at the work of Turner and Walter Sickert as well as the pre-raphealites to name a few shows how this world was such a gothic one. With regards to Verne and Wells they were very much influenced by this gothic literature as it was for Mary Shelley and even Bram Stoker (two other "gothic" novels I also see as science romance).

 It also goes to show how much the world was quite dark with regards to religion too. It was still considered a religious anathema to cremate people. But they had to change this because cemetries were becoming over filled to the point that human remains were literally rising from the grave when it rained and the earth expanded. Not to mention paganism. Before 1940 if there was a complaint about someone practicing alternative religions such as paganism they could have been trialled and prosecuted.

 Such historical facts the state of art as well as literature in this period is a testament to my stance on how the goth has a great influence on steampunk. Not just with this but also how it developed as a modern subculture with such vintage aesthetics that found themselves being re-processed through spin offs (developed) of the punks.


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