An airship hovers over a Steampunk city, exhaling steam into the sky above and shining light on the city below
Steampunk was originally inspired by the science fiction genre, but is primarily viewed through a retrospective lens, adapting historical concepts through a futuristic interpretation. The “Steampunk era” is devoid of digital contraptions, instead relying on purely mechanical processes to propel the evolution of humanity. As a result, the aesthetic is heavily characterized by the concept of modernized mechanization, where the past serves as a key reference point in defining the future. This certainly has a fantastical element to it, harkening back to one of mankind’s earliest determinations, to conquer the skies. Even though the skies are heavily populated with flying machines, they still remain the least crowded part of the scene, as the cities below have become densely packed with prototypes built along the way. To power such an immense city, Steampunk technology relies on traditional methods of steam power and burning coal, demonstrated through a palpable layer of the atmosphere choked with soot, smog, and steam.
 A watchtower view of balloons hovering over a city enshrouded in gold and steam
This sense of overcrowding is prevalent when exploring the minutiae of a singular Steampunk mechanism. The design is littered with gears and moving parts, to the point of excess. From an engineering standpoint, these designs appear to be completely impractical, but their interconnectedness provides the illusion that every single piece is a critical component. This defiance of reality is a defining characteristic of the Steampunk aesthetic, where the construction’s form improves its function. The architecture, weaponry, vehicles, and even wildlife are all based on familiar forms present in history. With this base knowledge established, the aesthetic dares to push the boundaries of how much these known icons can be modified, misshapen, and transformed, augmenting their primary functions.
 A clockwork heart poised and ready to start beating
There are many examples of Steampunk art, where the artist has taken a particular scene, and transformed it into an altered reality. While these renditions are designed to spark your imagination by providing a glimpse into the artist’s mind, I much prefer media that fleshes out this “new” world to a greater extent. One such example is present in the critically-acclaimed game: Bioshock Infinite. This game envisions a floating utopia amongst the clouds, where the society of Columbia is seemingly frozen in the past, yet the mechanized inventions prevalent throughout hint at its true progression over the years. What differentiates this world from others, is the overarching presence of its leader, Zachary Hale Comstock, who’s established an authoritarian dictatorship that reduces life to a set of rules and boundaries. Throughout this world, the signs of Comstock’s rule are ever-present, and act as a looming shadow over what would otherwise be a true utopia.
 The statue of Zachary Hale Comstock looms front and center amongst a bright, picturesque scene in Bioshock Infinite
This backstory requires multiple scenes to soak in, and it leads the viewer to appreciate one of the core tenants of the Steampunk aesthetic: the finer details. At a first glance, everything is magnificent and grandiose, but as one looks further, they find the inner workings of the world to be fully exposed and on display. Although the technology is quite common, a polished timepiece becomes a status of wealth, because not everyone can afford to keep their belongings in immaculate condition. This is where the concept of Steampunk truly shines. We cannot look to it purely as a sign of a brighter future, because we cannot forget the social, political, and economic factors that have defined history. It leads us to ask ourselves the question:
“What if we could change our past?”
 A mechanical fox perches above a British Flag as a colonized city rises in the background of the Love, Death, and Robots episode “Good Hunting”
Fascinating post, I always liked the aesthetic of steampunk and have every part seems to have a function even if not logical. I was wondering if you did any additional research on the different kinds of punks (Dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc…) and how the might have compared or if any inspired steampunk?
While the term “Steampunk” is a relatively recent creation from 1987, the concept of these retro-futuristic machines can be traced back to Japanese culture from the 1940’s. The inspiration was clearly a combination of the lasting impact of World War II and the previous science-fiction works of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Jules Verne. These factors spawned a variety of “punk” styles, based on different eras. Steampunk and Dieselpunk harken back to 19th Century industrialism (at different stages in its evolution), while Cyberpunk evolved with the rise of digital technology over the course of the 20th Century.
Thank you for sharing this post, I truly enjoyed reading it. Having played the game (Bioshock Infinity), I can completely relate to the part you have mentioned about the core tenants of Steampunk, as an aesthetic, being its finer details. I was drawn to that game solely because of the aesthetic it portrayed. Through your exploration of Steampunk, did you come across any physical pieces inspired by the aesthetic?
I found many physical pieces crafted in the steampunk aesthetic! I believe they are a smaller sub-genre of this design philosophy, carrying the common theme of emphasis on the the finer details, just compacted into one singular contraption instead of a whole city. Here are some pieces I found particularly inspiring: