Thursday, July 1, 2010

Steampunk via Historical Research

I just researched steampunk and all its trappings for a story I'm thinking about writing. I started by reading up on the Industrial Revolution, the second Industrial Revolution, steam engines, electricity and railroads. If you know much about steampunk, you may be familiar with much of this, but just in case you're not, here are 13 things I didn't know about the origins of steampunk as both a concept and a genre.

1) The term "steampunk" was allegedly coined by author KW Jeter in 1987 in a letter he wrote to Locus Magazine.

2) MacGyver, I mean, Richard Dean Anderson was in a television series with a steampunk twist called Legend that ran for 13 episodes in 1995 on UPN. It was technically a 'science fiction Western.'

3) When I asked my husband if he'd heard of that guy who built that steampunky computer thingie back in the 19th century, he knew immediately I was talking about Charles Babbage and his difference engine. The much more complex analytical engine that is a favorite in steampunk alternate history tales, Babbage was only able to put on paper, not into being.

4) Steampunk is also a bit of a play on the genre of cyberpunk, but works of steampunk tend to be less distopian and bleak. Like the Victorian age, much steampunk embodies a sense of hope and enthusiasm about the limitless possibility of science and invention.

5) One of the earliest novels that started tilting the direction of steampunk was Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake published in 1959. This is aside from stories by Verne or Wells, which technically were science fiction novels at the time, not steampunk.

6) Ned Ludd, for whom Luddites are named, was probably not even a real dude. Luddites probably wouldn't have enjoyed steampunk anyway.

7) The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the 1700's, although some historians place its origins even earlier.

8) The cotton gin, another invention that helped push industry forward, was possibly invented by a lady instead of Eli Whitney. However, Whitney was a dude so he got the patent and then spent most of his time trying to defend the patent from farmers who "invented" their own cotton gins rather than pay the patent or separation fee.

9) The earliest dirigible was probably flown in 1785 when a dude crossed the English Channel with a big ole balloon, a set of wings, and a tail he used to steer. His name was not Icarus.

10) The oldest railways were hauled by humans, and they were around in the 6th century BC.

11) The first patent for a steam locomotive was by James Watt in 1794. First US transcontinental railway? 1869. And steam locomotives were still in use in many, many countries as late as the 1950's.

12) The first gas lighting utilities were established in London, England, starting in 1812, right in time for the Regency balls we read so much about in the romance genre.

13) You don't even want to know about child labor in factories, mines and other industries as the Industrial Revolution marched on, so I won't list any facts about that.

I still feel like I don't know much about steampunk, but at least I know what I don't know and I know what I need to research! Do you ever get that feeling when you start a new project?

Jody W. *