In terms of literary genres and aesthetics, steampunk is still a relatively new culture. It may be little hard to pin down because it’s so deeply rooted in the views of various fantasy authors and open to interpretation, but the deeper I delve into it, the more I’m enthralled. As I assembled this year’s last minute Halloween costume, I began to realize something : I’ve always been a little bit steampunk.
If you’ve never heard of steampunk, let me try to describe it. Imagine an alternate universe where we never delved into the wonders of the atom, and instead were blessed with rayguns and fantastic airships powered entirely by Newtonian physics. Sure, we don’t have any plastics beyond Bakelite (invented in 1909) or microchips yet, but we still have many of the same machines that we do today – just engineered a little differently, and depending on who you read, possibly harnessing invisible cosmic energy instead of circuits. Think of items made entirely of wood, brass, copper tubing, pistons and a little bit of electricity – all housed in amazingly elegant, Victorian aesthetics. Goggles, top hats or pith helmets, orgone guns and robot arms are all part of this reality. It’s really pretty incredible.
There are tons of steampunk collectibles out there. While many of them are elegant costume pieces that involve brassy, ornate buttons or weird monocles, the true spirit of steampunk seems to dictate that you make your own devices. You don’t buy a raygun – you take a hairdryer and some shower curtain rings and you assemble it yourself. If you’re really hardcore, you make it out of real metal and wood – but when it’s done, it should look like it took a wrong turn in 1900.
Purists might frown upon the use of nixie tubes (invented in the 1950s) as post-steampunk, but we’re already dealing with science that doesn’t really exist and made strange, intuitive leaps beyond what it would normally discover. Some might not even welcome the idea of the electric ‘fast break’ lightswitch incorporated into a design, even though the lightswitch did indeed exist in 1900. Of course, it’s always a little cooler to have things that crank and whirr without the addition of truly modern tech, but you take what you can get – especially if you’re making something cool enough to function. This is one especially great part about steampunk – you learn to pinpoint exactly when certain things were invented before you start adding them to your collection of props.
I found that I’ve been collecting brass ornamentation and skeleton keys, weird leather bits, watchsprings and gears since high school – and I already had a top hat and three pairs of authentic welders goggles which were actually one of my first eBay purchases – and well before the idea of ‘steampunk’ made them a hot commodity. I was able to turn some of these into a light-up raygun for my costume (seen here still in progress).
While technically props, I’ve talked about Dr. Grordbort’s incredible rayguns before, which have made great leaps towards bringing the idea of steampunk to a wider audience. You might also be interested in looking at these LEGO steampunk inventions, or these Mechtorian miniature figures that depict an interesting collection of steampunk influenced robots (though a little too cutesy for my taste). Recently, there was this steampunk wedding cake, and there are entire societies dedicated to the aesthetic. While some claim that this is a lifestyle rather than an aesthetic, that’s certainly a topic for debate.
Check your closets, antique freaks – you may be a steampunk.