Real World Steampunk

Fantastic in the Everyday

You venture onto the streets of 19th century New York, where your carriage awaits. With care, you lift the hem of your skirt and step up into the conveyance. Once positioned, you give a nod to your driver. Rather than flick the reins of a horse, he adjusts complex equipment, and your carriage lurches forward, pulled by a massive steam fueled automaton in the form of a dignified gentleman.

Such a scenario might fit well the pages of a steampunk novel, but the steam man actually existed, one of many examples of real-world steampunk inventions. As fiction, steampunk fuses 19th century culture (often the Victorian era), with advanced technology powered by steam rather than modern-day sources of fuel, using elements of the past as a base to create a speculative future. Jules Verne, HG Wells, and other Victorian writers of speculative fiction penned the precursors to this genre, and many today follow in their footsteps.

In the Victorian era, steam men actually had a place in our culture, but they remained novelties, never catching on with the general public as their inventors hoped. In 1868, Zadoc P. Dederick created and patented the first successful steam man. He conceived the idea at the age of sixteen, but it took him six years to bring a viable model to completion. His steam man, a rather bulky affair, attached directly to a carriage and was touted as a better alternative to horse-pulled conveyances, since it could travel at almost any rate of speed without tiring and pull a load equivalent to that of three draft horses. The 7’9” giant had a face “molded into a cheerful countenance of white enamel, which contrasts well with the dark hair and mustache,” according to a period newspaper, and a body crafted to appear as human-like as possible, so it wouldn’t frighten the horses when it joined them on the streets.

The cost of construction–somewhere in the range of $25,000-30,000 in today’s currency–certainly prohibited mass production, though Dederick claimed he could get the cost down to a fraction of the initial price for successive steam man. Apparently, he never got the chance.

Following in Dederick’s footsteps, George Moore created a new steam man in 1893, rather less practical and powerful than its precursor. This creation stirred media sensation, though it only had a 1/2 horsepower engine and needed a stabilizing horizontal bar in order to walk. Others dabbled with steam men during this era, and though they never made much headway into popular culture, steam men paved the way for future automatons and robotics of various forms.

Such real-life inventions provide intriguing fodder for fictive tales…and prove that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

What do you think of the steampunk genre? Do you read it? Write it?

Personally I enjoy Jules Verne’s stories, but I haven’t read many modern-day steampunk writers. I’m open for suggestions, though. Do you have any recommended authors in this genre (you’re welcome to share a little about your own work as well)?


  • Evangeline Denmark
    April 21, 2011 - 11:46 am · Reply

    I love steampunk! The fashion! The fiction! It’s so fun. I recommend Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel. I also adore Gail Carriger although more conservative readers might not find her their cup of tea.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 21, 2011 - 6:09 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the recommendations, Evangeline. I’m going to go check them out on Amazon. Though I haven’t read many books in this category, it seems like a fun genre. And I’ll admit to an affinity for the fashions as well. At last year’s ACFW conference, Randy, John, and Meredith dressed up in full steampunk garb…and ever since then I’ve been wanting an outfit of my own. I suppose I would need an excuse to wear it too!

  • Mary
    April 21, 2011 - 12:53 pm · Reply

    I have recently fallen completely in love with the steampunk genre. I agree with Evangeline: the fashion and styles are great, so much fun to work and play with. Personally, I think that steampunk could be the next big trend in speculative fiction.
    I’m actually privileged to be part of a multi-author novel project right now, and the novel-in-progress is set in the steampunk genre. (My partners and I hope to be announcing the official launch date for the project soon, so anyone interested in steampunk is welcome to stop by my blog for further announcements )
    Thanks for this post, Sarah. I can always count on you to bring something interesting, thought-provoking, and fun to the table!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 21, 2011 - 6:09 pm · Reply

      Just for curiosity’s sake, what first hooked you on steampunk? None of my stories even border on steampunk, but it seems like it allows for a unique sort of creativity, and I can imagine exploring it one day. I love all the real world connections–clothes, jewelry, all sorts of inventive devices.

      The popularity of genres and sub-genres is always tricky to predict, but given the high interest level in all sorts of urban fantasy, I can see it taking off. I’m excited to learn more about your project, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on your blog. 🙂

      • Mary
        April 21, 2011 - 11:22 pm · Reply

        I had never even heard of steampunk until just recently when a friend mentioned the term. Once she explained the definition to me I realized that I had loved the steampunk style for a long time, I just didn’t realize there was a term for it. I’m rather Victorian at heart, and I love Victorian styles, but I like a little attitude to go with it and steampunk definitely provides that. ; )
        One of the other things I love about the genre is its versatility; a steampunk story can be set in Victorian England, but it can just as easily be set in an alternate world all its own. Gotta love it!

        • Sarah Sawyer
          April 22, 2011 - 6:40 pm · Reply

          How neat that steampunk intrigued you before you officially knew of its existance. 🙂 At one time, I considered majoring in history, and I’ve always had an affinity for the styles and culture of the past, so the fusion between historical and speculative definitely appeals to me also.

  • Mark Fenger
    April 22, 2011 - 11:43 am · Reply

    Good stuff! I didn’t know that people had actually tried to create mechanical men for practical purposes like that. This post reminds me of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which deals with automatons which would draw pictures or write stories through an amazingly complex system of gears and such.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 22, 2011 - 6:52 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Mark! The Invention of Hugo Cabret sounds intriguing–another book to explore further.

      In the 18th century, inventor Pierre Jaquet-Doz actually created three automatons (the Writer, the Draftsman, and the Musician) each capable of performing their respective tasks, from drawing to playing an instrument. They may not be as sophisticated as the ones in the book, but it’s fascinating nevertheless. I’d love to see one of those figures in action.

  • Mirriam
    June 16, 2011 - 4:18 pm · Reply

    I LOVE Steampunk! Next to Fantasy, it’s my favorite genre!
    I’m writing a steampunk book, called “The Mutts.” Some books I recommend are “Foundling,” “Pastworld,” “Earthshaker” “Incarceron” and its sequel, “Sapphique.”
    The movie “Treasure Planet” is pretty steampunk, as well as the more modern-steampunk “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 17, 2011 - 5:39 pm · Reply

      Steampunk seems to be gaining significant traction–at least I’m finding more and more people with an avid interest in it–so it’s a good time to write it! I haven’t dabbled in it yet, but it certainly intrigues me.

      Thanks for all the recommendations! I loved Foundling (assuming it is the one by DM Cornish), and I’m definitely going to go check out the others you mentioned.

  • morganvillemuse
    November 19, 2011 - 11:40 am · Reply

    I’m about half-way through writing my current novel, Dust to Ashes, a ya urban fantasy/horror. Its set in NY in present day and revolves around werefoxes, faeries and fallen angels. There’s also the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. However, I’ve recently started wanting to add elements of steampunk to my story, automated healers and a crazy faerie professor who makes them. Unfortunately, it sounds as though it may take away the whole haunting, eeriee style of the books by adding comedy. Is there any way to do this (it may even be useful for a follow-up book) without making it comical? Or will I have to remove the steampunk?

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 22, 2011 - 1:41 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Morgan! It sounds like you have a lot going on in your story, and one important thing to consider is if the additional elements add or detract from the primary focus of your plot. If you do determine you have too many disparate elements, you can always use them in other stories. 🙂

      As to your specific question, I think it depends. If you’re going for an eerie tone, then strong comedic elements will likely distract and send mixed messages to your readers. However, I don’t think that means you have to remove the steampunk. For example, if you’re going for a horror feel, it could be terrifying if the professor was truly crazy, and his automatons always do his bidding–no matter how many people/faeries are harmed. Maybe they start out as healers, but end up as something evil as he descends further into madness. Of course, this may not fit your story at all, but you see the idea.

      If you’re certain the steampunk elements enhance your story (it can be helpful to get the input of experienced critquers to determine this), then you need to make sure they’re haunting and horrifying in their own right. At least that’s my opinion!

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