The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

2013 April 8 - May 27
A New Approach to Experimental History of Science
Through the Then-Unpaved Stars, the Turnpike Road

Nottingham Express Transit Tram 205. Photo by Chris McKenna, aka Thryduulf.

2013 May 27

Ada Lovelace's father ("mad, bad, and dangerous to know!") put it this way:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation --
said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation) --
A mode of proving that the earth turned round
In a most natural whirl, called "Gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true ; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes ;
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.

And wherefore this exordium ? -- Why, just now,
In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,
My bosom underwent a glorious glow,
And my internal spirit cut a caper :
And though so much inferior, as I know,
To those who, by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars and sail in the wind's eye,
I wish to do as much by poesy.

Cosmonauts on the Moon, 1887. Illustration by A. E. Hoffmann from Tsiolkovsky's Na Lune.

The steam engine did not quite bring Nineteenth Century man (and woman) to the Moon, but it brought them close enough to imagine the voyage. Still, "poesy" remained a necessary component of the vehicle -- as it does again, with the brief Space-Age receding into the past at a startlingly rocket-like velocity and dwindling to the same remoteness as the Age of Steam. Small wonder, then, that in the last third of the disappointing Twentieth-Century a movement arose that looked back with longing on both periods at once. This movement, eventually and perhaps unfortunately christened "Steampunk", would be of limited interest were it only what many of its well-meaning advocates maintain that it is: a sub-genre of science fiction depicting an alternate 1800s in which the technological advances predicted by Wells and Verne had actually taken place.

In fact, Steampunk from its beginnings in the 1980s showed signs of becoming an independent subculture which rejected both the mainstream values of the time and the anti-technological bias of the "counterculture" with which it was otherwise largely in sympathy. Like most processes of cultural development, this evolution was erratic and riddled with inconsistencies. By the 2000s, however, some clear patterns had emerged.

Devotees of the genre had begun not merely dressing like their favourite characters in the usual sci-fi fanboy manner, but actually attempting to build the kinds of machines mentioned in the novels. When this was impossible, some strove to create works of art depicting how such machines might look if they existed, while others transformed everyday machines in accordance with what they supposed to be Victorian æsthetics, making Twenty-First Century devices that seemed to belong in an Edisonade.

Exhibition of Steampunk art at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, 2009/10. [5 min 20 sec]

Steampunk tapped into many reservoirs of sentiment at once: popular nostalgia for the good old days, utopian dreams of the possible future, youthful defiance of the adult establishment, the survivalist ethos of self-sufficiency, but also, most surprisingly, the nearly-extinct tradition of scientific and technological optimism. It suggested that Nineteenth-Century authors were right to believe that good engineering and rational thought could address the world's problems, however little confirmatory evidence the Twentieth Century might offer, but also that it was the responsibility of the individual members of society to create the ideal world themselves rather than wait for others. Nikola Tesla, lone inventor, was the archetypal Steampunk hero.

Of course, the cult of the Nineteenth Century implicit in Steampunk had obvious limitations: a proliferation of twee Victoriana, a disturbing admiration for days when the sun never set on the Union Jack, a willful ignorance of the more Taliban-like side of the 1800s. People with a diachronic perspective on the Age of Steam did not hesitate to point this out. However, at least for the more thoughtful Steampunks, this critique largely missed the point. They had never seen themselves as mere neo-Victorians, nor even as the equivalent of Civil War re-enactors in the United States, honouring an era while acknowledging its darker aspects. Rather, they argued, they were celebrating, or creating, "a past which never was," but which might have been.

The "Victorian Space-Age" was a missed opportunity, but not one gone forever beyond reach; the best of the age could be revived and its latent possibilities realised. Steam technology and lighter-than-air craft could (in some rather unclear way) be made "green", the capitalist excesses of the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries could be tamed in the spirit of Ruskin or Kropotkin, and the civilising aspects of the Victorian Age could prevail over its barbarisms this time around.

In short, the Steampunks' attitude to the past was cenochronic.

One might argue that these fine intentions are unrealisable. Can anyone actually build a steam-powered spaceship? How about one deriving its power from the luminiferous æther? Clearly, it would be unwise to wager much on a positive answer to these questions, and at heart Steampunk is more about poesy than about steam engines. Nevertheless, in certain areas, and perhaps especially in robotics, some impressive results have been attained:

I-Wei Huang's steam-powered robots [3 min 22 sec]

Like all movements in popular culture, Steampunk began to decay as soon as it became popular enough to have an impact. It became, seemingly overnight, more of a fashion statement than a philosophical school, although more positive aspects remain. The music video Steampunk Revolution (below) by the band Abney Park illustrates the popcult aspects of contemporary Steampunk, good and bad. Steampunk in the 2010s is excessively vaudevillian and dandified, eager to shock the (nowadays bluejean-clad) bourgeois establishment, given to absurd nostalgia ("Out with the new, in with the old!"), unclear about any higher purpose beyond wild revels ("We've darted back to 1886 -- don't ask us why; that's how we get our kicks!"). Lord Byron would have been delighted and joined in with enthusiasm; his software-engineer daughter would perhaps have reacted more coolly (and her colleague Babbage would have plugged his ears and begun composing angry letters to The Times). But the video also features some of the extraordinary working machinery which Steampunks have hand-crafted, and it suggests the technophilia which distinguishes them from most of the young utopians who have swaggered across the Western world since the 1960s.

Steampunk's do-it-yourself past, the Thucydidean Nineteenth-Century "as it should have been", represents a real-world application of the cenochronic approach to history which I have advocated in a recent post at this site. Steampunk manifests the deep human need for authentic communion with previous generations, a communion based not on mindless veneration (or condemnation) but on the power of imagination and love to conquer time. That, I think, is the point of the following punk/folk music video, filmed aboard the steam-powered vehicle Neverwas Haul.

The Land of Lost Things by Renée de la Prade with Culann's Hounds, at the Burning Man Festival, 2010. [4 min 30 sec]