Is Steampunk a British Thing?

Whenever I think about steampunk, I see the Union Jack flying over alien lands.

Imagine being born in 1837. The year that Queen Victoria became monarch and head of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever seen. The industrial revolution was in full swing. The cities of Northern England were filling up with foundries, factories and mills. Steam engines were replacing waterwheels as the power source behind this manufacturing explosion, increasing productivity and lowering costs. The world’s first steam powered railway had been in operation for just 12 years. Ocean going steamship were a novelty.

By the time you were eighteen in 1855, the Crimean war was raging as the great powers, Britain, France and Russia fought each other to a standstill. Englishman David Livingstone was the first European to see the Victoria Falls in, what was then, deepest, darkest Africa. The first electric telegraphs had been introduced a few years earlier and the first transcontinental telegraphs were being installed to provide fast communications across the British Empire. In the next few years, Darwin would publish the Origin of Species and John Snow would prove that cholera was caused by dirty water. Science was starting to explain the great mysteries of where we came from and why we die.

Over the next 22 years steam would reach it peak, powering the empire to unimaginable feats of engineering. The engineering might of Britian produced bridges, locomotives and ships that dwarfed everything that gone before in size, power and speed. Steam was king but it was a subject of the British Empire. In the space of 50 years Britons pushed back the bounds of our knowledge at a speed unseen since the Renaissance and the Empire’s factories turn these ideas in goods that were shipped around the world. As a nation and as individuals we swept across the world bringing our culture, our ideas, our ideas, our prejudices, our religions and our diseases to the people of the world.

But by Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 there was a change taking place. Impossible to spot at the time, the focus was starting to shift towards America. Electric lighting was being rolled out and the first petroleum engines were being invented. America, free of history, infrastructure and vested interests would take these inventions and sell them to the world. It was the beginning of the end of the age of steam and the British Empire it had powered.

Well that is what the history books say anyway but who cares about that.

Steampunk is a world where the steam age never lost pressure.

A world where were Charles Babbage completed his Difference Engine, unlocking the power of computers a century early. A world where huge flying leviathans of the British Navy dominate the skies as its battleships dominated the sea. A world where man made one small step in 1889, not 1969.

And that man would of been British. Educated at Eton or Harrow. A gentleman explorer in the mold of Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton who strove to claim knowledge, power and wealth in the name of Empress Victoria. Absolutely certain in the knowledge everything good was made in Britain and everything Britain did was good.

Steampunk without the British Empire is simply unimaginable.

Part of the June 2009 RPG Carnival hosted by Mad Brew Labs: Steampunk & Klokwerks


  1. As British as Punk! And just as when we think of cyberpunk we inevitably imagine the US, steampunk has to have a british genesis. Also aren’t most of the authors who have written in this genre also British?

    But I think the punk elements are largely lacking from most steampunk. Punk doesn’t fit well with Victorian sensibilities, though in the cyberpunk sense of the poor and downtrodden living in the shadow of the corporations I think it fits with the era of the Industrial revolution. But the other cultural elements of the word punk don’t fit, I think.

    faustusnotes´s last blog post..Current Viewing: Terminator Salvation

  2. @Faustusnotes

    I had never considered the punk aspect of steampunk and you are right. The Punk – challenging the system – mentality is not Victorian.

    Though there were plenty of people did challenge the system – Women going to university, numerous sex scandals, the behavior of the prince of wales (smoking, drinking, whoring). The Victorian era also covers the rise of the labour movement, communism and radical revolutionary politics.

    Chris Tregenza´s last blog post..Yeah Baby!

  3. I agree that the idea of the British Empire (well…if we forget the parts about widescale slaughter of people who weren’t British, the sexism etc etc 😉 ) makes for great steampunk.

    The American Confederacy does seem to crop up in Steampunk a lot as well though. Probably Harry Turtledove’s fault.

    Hammer´s last blog post..A Moral Quandary Too Far?

Comments are closed.