I’ve been asked several times if I had a list of “usual” gadgets in Steampunk. The request sort of baffled me, since (to me) half the fun of Steampunk is making things up. But, when I thought about it, I could identify several things that are not uncommon to find gadget/technology-wise in Steampunk stories. This isn’t a comprehensive list and by no means do you need to have *all* of these in your world.
Aether is a classical element. In ancient times it was thought to be the forces beyond control. In the late 19th century, the term luminiferous aether was used to describe a medium for the propagation of light. There’s a lot of room to use this mysterious element in everything from a power source to a scapegoat for natural disasters. In Katie MacAlister’s Steamed, rayguns shoot superheated aether.
In analog technology, a wave is recorded or used in its original form, where in digital technology the analog wave is sampled at some interval, and then turned into numbers that are stored in the digital device. What if we continued as an analog society instead of a digital one?
An automaton is a self-operating machine (an autonomous robot). They could be anything from elaborate clockwork singing birds (or killer ladybugs like in Blameless) to robot servants (like in Android Karenina). They could be lifelike or stylized, maybe they even have a windup key in their back.
Machines using elaborate clockwork can abound in Steampunk. They can be anything from automatons to actually being the “heart” of a city. They could set off explosives, or run radios, trains, or analytical engines.
A difference engine is a type of mechanical calculator capable of computing complex equations. Charles Babbage’s design featured a hand-cranked device. An analytical engine is a mechanical general-purpose computer using punch-cards.
Jules Verne enchanted us all with balloon travel in “Around the World in Eighty Days” and “Five weeks in a Balloon.” But aircraft get even bigger like blimps, zeppelins, dirigibles, and airships.
They could be grand and elegant passenger ships of gleaming wood and polished brass, or could be patched and clunky cargo haulers, or these vessels could be filled with the most fearsome people to haunt Steampunk skies—air pirates!
They could be steam, helium, or hydrogen powered. Maybe they’re solar or run on aether.
But ships aren’t the only things that can fly. What about personal aircraft like “detachable wings” – small powered gliders with wings reminiscent of a Da Vinci sketch or hoverboards? And don’t forget the flying car or the flying city—or the genetically engineered airship made from a Whale in Leviathan. Flying machines go beyond the dirigible and are only limited by the imagination
Rayguns are as quintessential to Steampunk as airships. They are “directed energy” weapons used for maiming or killing people and powered on all sorts of things, from aether to fairy-farts (okay, I made that up). They can come in all sizes and shapes, and generally are metallic-colored. Sometimes they may be pearl-encrusted for evening wear. After all, a lady’s raygun says a lot about her.
Steam technology is the fundamental basis of Steampunk. Steam engines can power trains and boats or run factory equipment or mills, steam turbines can produce electricity. Steam can power cars or farm equipment, heat houses, power weaponry–it can even run clocks.
In a basic steam engine heat is obtained from fuel burnt in an enclosed firebox. The heat boils water in a pressurized boiler, turning it into saturated steam. The steam transfers to a motor which uses it to push on a piston sliding inside a cylinder, powering the machinery. As the steam cools it is exhausted into the air.
There are all sorts of steam engines of varying sophistication, including underwater jet and rocket-type engines. How about a steam-powered submarine?
Escaping steam and boiler explosions can call all sorts of devastation, disaster, and injury.
Who doesn’t love time machines? Whether they take you to the past or the future, they guarantee and adventure.
These are just a few things to get you started and there’s much more to these technologies than my little descriptions. Taking these basics and making them your own (and inventing new things) is half the fun. Write on!
So…what’s your favorite Steampunk gadget?