Retro-style Speculative Fiction set in periods where steam power is king. Very often this will be in an Alternate Universe where the internal combustion engine never displaced the steam engine, and as a result all manner of cool steam-driven technologies have emerged, ranging from Airships to submarines; the plausible counterpart to Magitek, with a Hollywood ScienceHand Wave or The Spark of Genius. Largely, steampunk runs on Rule of Cool. Sometimes combined with the work of Charles Babbage on mechanical computers to produce a kind of retro Cyber Punk set entirely in the Victorian era or a close analogue, with Dickensian exploitation.
Steampunk may be a modern reflection of the 1930s40s trope of The Gay Nineties, an idealized version of the 1890s. While various works may be more chronologically specific, any time from around 1860, through to the sinking of the Titanic, can be considered fair game. The term "steampunk" was coined by K. W. Jeter to describe the speculative fiction stories in a Victorian setting that he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock were writing in the early 1980s in contrast to the Cyber Punk stories like Neuromancer that were saturating media. Steampunk's modern incarnation may be considered a reaction to the popular dystopias of that time: the positive power of the imagination and subversion of the New Technology Is Evil trope are common steampunk themes, although recent Steam Punk is increasingly likely to deal with dystopian societies, sometimes even drawing upon the works of Charles Babbage to theorize humans with mechanical brains and other things rendering them Cyber Punk in all but backdrop and visual trappings.
Elements of steampunk that are set in the American frontier are usually referred to as "Cattle Punk". Some writers and fans refer to the "shiny happy" version as "Victorian Fantasy", "Gaslamp Fantasy" or "Victorian Futurism". Supernatural or paranormal tropes are more frequently included in this approach, in which case the Encyclopedia of Fantasy favours "Gaslight Romance".
The more Victorian branch of Steampunk sometimes also incorporates vaguely Lovecraftian elements, as shown here. Another good example of the Lovecraftian/antediluvian influence on Steampunk would be the design of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's submarine, in the film adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Expect to also see a strong, visible Irish influence, in terms of such features as stained wood, brass, and American frontier-style blown glass oil lamps. You will occasionally encounter some minor overlap with the post-Victorian Art Deco movement as well, particularly in terms of typography. The Zeppelin or could also be considered one of the major icons of Steampunk, due to the major public enthusiasm for the craft pre-1937. This is despite them being much more commonplace in the Diesel Punk era. To be fair, though, the first airship flew in 1852, predating both the Lincoln Administration and radio- and yes, it was powered by a steam engine.
Jules Verne, the first Speculative Fiction writer, is the king of this trope. He and H. G. Wells are often mentioned as the foundation of a literary steampunk's reading list. For added style, however, knowledge of the New Thought movement can help, as can Spiritualism, as both of those were very popular among the Victorians, and very influential on their thinking. In addition to being a science fiction writer, Jules Verne was also a Naturalist. The Steampunk Naturalist, as exemplified by Verne and others such as William Beebe, is one of Steampunk's most important subtropes.
If instead of industrial era technology, the setting has pre-industrial technology, see Clock Punk, and if it includes internal combustion engines in place of steam, see Diesel Punk, though there can be crossover between them if used purely asthetically. Many examples of Steam Punk mix in a few mutated monsters (probably in homage to Charles Darwin living roughly in the era depicted), thereby bordering upon Bio Punk. If it assumes the truth of Victorian-era science, it may also become an example of All Theories Are True. Visual media (and the real life Steampunk subculture) will never miss a chance to showcase some seriously Awesome Anachronistic Apparel, and for Fanservice's sake a woman in a corset must be involved at some point. As might be expected, Steam Punk fashion/costuming has a certain amount of overlap with the Gothic subculture, although the Goth look tends to be somewhat darker, and not as heavily focused on machinery as such.
Of course, the difference invalues between the Victorian era and the present are rarely mentioned, unless the work is emphasising the "Punk" side of things more than most of them do, or consciously attempting Deconstruction.
However, any Victorian-era society which actually tried to create steampunk technology would soon find itself in stark trouble. Barring magical intervention, the power requirements necessary to make real-world versions of steampunk devices (or at least Victorian-era versions of 20th century technology) would be enormous, and would soon exhaust all available supplies of coal and wood. A real steampunk society would have to either immediately transform into a fully modern society (with oil, gas, and nuclear power driving devices made of modern, lighter materials) or would quickly become, in all probability, a technological dead end. With this said, the recent development of a number of designs of rocket stoves beginning in the 1980s, have demonstrated that a highly fuel efficient steam boiler may in fact not be quite so impractical after all, at least on a small scale. On this point, it is also worth mentioning that the average contemporary power station still runs primarily on large coal-fired steam turbines, and that nuclear power still actually involves running a steam turbine as well, but simply uses the heat from (ideally) contained nuclear reactions to generate steam, rather than a wood or coal-fed fire.
To a large extent, it seems like the fantasy genre is quickly moving away from traditional medieval Heroic Fantasy settings and more towards settings inspired by Steampunk. Some modern fantasy authors even combine the two.
Not to be confused with Goth, although the two subcultures do share a similar fashion sense and there is some crossover. Should also be noted that Steam Punk is not rooted from the Punk subculture.
Compare with Cyber Punk, which shares some similarities with Steam Punk.
Compare Low Culture, High Tech, especially if the story takes place in a real-life historical period. Also compare Zeerust.
For a list of tropes common to Steampunk, check out the Steampunk Index.
Oh, and glueing some gears on it doesn't make it steampunk. As far as hardware hacking or Makerism specifically are concerned, (as opposed to the purely fictional stuff) the Steampunk aesthetic exists on the basis of the idea that something looks good because it is good; i.e., a thing's image is an outgrowth of its (effective) fundamental design. This can be achieved in practice, by adhering to a proven engineering tradition, such as the UNIX design philosophy. This video may also help to explain further.
There is also a Steampunk genre of music (see Music, below), an element of cosplay, and the intersection with the Maker movement as described above (with designers such as Jake von Slatt receiving some mainstream attention). The Other Wiki also has an article about Steampunk as well.
In this commercial for the California Lottery, a man is being asked about his dog just as he wins the Lotto. He and his dog transform into steampunks, and fly away in a hot air balloon airship.
"His name... is Cornelius! And he invented long division!"
In this commercial for Intel Ultrabook, a woman uses one of the laptops in a London Metro station. As she closes it and it converts to a tablet, the scene around her transforms into a Victorian train station and as a steam engine pulls into the station, a curious Victorian crowd gathers.
The version of Professor Moriarty from Meitantei Holmes (US name Sherlock Hound) uses a variety of steam-powered contraptions. Some of them are fairly reasonable (a particularly large automobile, a steam-powered press for minting counterfeit coins), but others fall squarely into this (an airplane modeled on a Pterosaur or an amphibious paddle-boat with robotic arms).
Although the tech is not the main focus of the series, D.Gray-Man happens to have a relatively good Science Division where everyone there operates by multiple flat screen television and massive steel plants. In the Victorian Era!
And the chief of the Science Division creates enormous robots on a seemingly daily basis.
Samurai 7 is steampunk with giant, flying mechs. Since all the main characters use swords, it balances out.
Ergo Proxy A majority of the series is set around a wind machine called the 400 Rabbits.
The Transformers comic miniseries Hearts of Steel was set in the 1800's with the giant robots turning into Steam Punk equivalents of their regular forms. It also had Mark Twain as a badass action hero who saves the town from a coal powered Ravage.
Atomic Robo has a steampunk brainwashed cyborg supersoldier, and more bizarrely a moving pyramid with steam powered robot mummies that is operated by a steam-based mechanical computer.
The 2000 AD series Defoe and The Red Seas contain elements of this style, typically leaning towards the clockpunk variant, given the Restoration and Age of Piracy settings, respectively. Defoe actually include primitive automatons explicitly referred to as "Clock Punks", presumably in reference to the term.
The Nemesis the Warlock storyline "The Gothic Empire" featured a far-future empire which modeled its technology with a heavy steampunk aesthetic. We are introduced to a rebel faction known as the "Young Goths," who, inspired by mid-20th century television broadcasts, wish to remodel their culture along dieselpunk lines.
There is a 1989 Alternate Universe comic of Batman, titled Gotham by Gaslight, in which the world's greatest detective has to do battle with Jack the Ripper. While it's mostly a straight period piece, the sequel is very steampunky, with dirigibles, automatons, and Death Rays.
Arcana Studios' Steampunk Originals anthology, and other titles in the Steampunk Originals imprint including The Steam Engines of Oz and John Henry: The Steam Age. The Steampunk Originals mission statement says "Goggles, gadgets, and gears: considering Steampunk on those terms is no less absurd then imagining our reality populated solely by electricians, hackers, and astronauts".
In February 2014, DC Comics released 20 books with steampunk alternate covers. Some of them are more steampunk than others. (The Green Lanterns in ruffs seem to be about 300 years out...)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire has some aspects of Steampunk in the beginning, considering that in 1914 the characters travel to Atlantis in a submarine so technologically advanced at least in design and features that it hasn't been made 95 years on. Oh, and, the giant drill truck. Then again, this is the film that contains flying fish-like craft powered by crystals full of Applied Phlebotinum, so...
In the Casper feature film, the mansion's secret laboratory.
Doc Brown's time-locomotive at the end of the Back to the Future trilogy: "It runs on steam!". Another example earlier in the movie was his steam-powered refrigerator (which was big enough to take up a garage by itself).
The film Mutant Chronicles is firmly entrenched in the Steampunk genre, though it forgoes zeppelins in favour of flying trains. It actually looks more plausible than it sounds.
The 1970s Czechoslovak detective comedy Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet features a lot of steampunky gadgets and esthetics both on the side of the protagonists and the bad guys, given that it's an Affectionate Parody of turn-of-the-century pulp novels and penny dreadfuls.
Live Action TV
Castle: Had an episode set in a steampunk-themed club, and Castle went all-out getting into the part. The episode in question is held up as one of the few mainstream shows who got Steampunk right, and was the result of an open challenge after the... less than stellar use of it in NCIS:LA mentioned below.
Also the design of Eleven's TARDIS has a few steam punk nods.
The 2010 Christmas Special, "A Christmas Carol," had strong steampunk elements as well.
"The Power of the Daleks" had a definite steampunk feel. Or would have done, if the 1967 audience had known about steampunk.
Firefly: While not strictly steampunk, the series does contain a lot of steampunk themes (mixing 19th century aesthetics with sci-fi elements and storylines) as well as steampunk character types such as the Wrench Wench, and went a long way toward popularizing the genre.
Fringe: The episode "Brown Betty" has Steampunk and Schizo Tech designs throughout the episode. Although the episode was more Diesel Punk as a whole.
Revolution: The Georgia Federation has reverted to this full-stop, converting buses and agricultural machinery to steam power in response to the loss of electricity. Miles notes that their standard of living is substantially higher than that of the Monroe Republic at least partly as a result ("The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia").
In one episode, Col. Sheppard and Dr. McKay had been playing an RTS game they had found on the station, where they each built up and controlled neighboring countries. At least, they thought it was a game, until they found a planet with countries built up exactly like they had specified. Dr. McKay's country was fully steampunk, with leather and brass, goggles, steam power and dirigibles.
While this is probably the only episode to invoke the trope intentionally, many other planets of the week in both Atlantis and Stargate SG-1 had cultures that were clearly at an 1890s level, from tech to fashion, though it bore little, if any, relevance to the plot. Many establishing shots of smoke-filled cities with skies full of airships, science labs full of brass tubing and smoked glass. The show's artists/costumers, at least, were clearly fans of the genre.
Tin Man: Sci-Fi Channel's 3-part 6-hour mini-series, a re-interpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has a distinctly steampunk feel to at least the architecture and machinery, with just a tiny bit of cyberpunk thrown in for higher tech purposes. Appropriate to the setting. See "Literature." The Oz books were loaded with steam-tech.
Torchwood: Captain Jack, captured by Torchwood agents in the 19th century, is interrogated by means of a Patent Electric Torture Device, with the inventors' faces on the lid.
Warehouse 13: Plays with this, especially in terms of aesthetics, although it's a bit closer to Diesel Punk in terms of the artifacts being handled (like the Farnsworth). The field agents, however, use fairly standard modern tech. Although when Helena is a field agent, she prefers her own Steam Punk equipment.
The Wild Wild West : One of the earliest examples of steampunk on television. Practically every other episode featured a mad scientist outfitted with Verne-style tech.
The band Abney Park's whole image is based on steampunk, more now than it used to be. Worth noting that part of their image involves their own Cool Airship. They are drunk airship pirates, after all.
Thomas Dolby exemplifies this trope and has since the early 80's.
The Clockwork Quartet (Also found here) are entirely based around steampunk, have a steampunk synthesizer, dress in steampunk clothing, and one member has a business on the side selling little clockwork devices.
The band The Cog Is Dead thrives on being mercilessly steampunk.
The Role-Playing Game game Mutant Chronicles (along with its tie-ins, collectible card game Doom Trooper, battle game War Zone and the 2008 feature film), although it takes place somewhere in the XXVIIIth century, is actually Steampunk, as the Mutants and Dark Symmetry (a kind of evil power field) rendered all electronic devices unreliable and therefore practically unusable, so humanity was forced to rely on steam-powered ones. This was averted in later editions of War Zone, where the universe turned more to Diesel Punk and Cybertronic remained straight Cyberpunk.
Warhammer's Dwarves and Chaos Dwarves have loads of Steampunk contraptions, including a chopper and for one character, body armour which helps him move. The Empire also has a steam-powered tank.
The Alchemical Exalted are heroes of a clockwork world who are implanted with steam (and other weird materials) powered devices that make them more effective as hero figures.
The D20 roleplaying game Etherscope is set in a Victorian, steampunk world complete with the usual paraphernalia. The main difference being the existence of the titular 'etherscope' which allows for the creation of computer-like mechanisms, amongst other things...
While Dungeons & Dragons is generally a High Fantasy RPG, Gnomes tend to border on, or full-out jump into, Steampunk. The Spelljammer setting in particular uses this, where Gnomes even have "rocket ships."
3.5 even features several Prestige Classes made for Gnomes which feature them as Steampunk or Clockpunk mad scientists.
Eberron invokes this trope, along with Magitek, but is more magic-based technology than Steampunk. Actual technology is rare and often not worth it, due to magic being so readily available and easy to learn.
Some of the more advanced realms in Ravenloft feature steampunk elements.
GURPS 3rd Edition had a Steampunk sourcebook, which included various Steampunk devices, details of Victoriana, and contained three Steampunk settings: Etheria (Planetary Romance); Iron ("conventional" dystopian steampunk) and Qabala (a weird variant, essentially "Golempunk"). This was followed by Steam-Tech, with further gadgets including an automaton detective (which was not intended to resemble Mr Holmes of Baker Street in any way). In GURPS Tech Level terms, Steampunk is considered TL5+ 1 (that is, as far advanced as TL6, but different).
The Mage Knight "Black Powder Rebels" faction was highly steampunk, including steam golems and a steam tank.
A Polish RPG now released in English - Wolsung Steam Pulp Fantasy. It's more Steam than Punk and the authors themselves call it Victorian Fantasy. The setting is something similiar to our world on the brink of the XXth century, but filtered through pulp fiction from the time, with a little bit of classic fantasy and lots of pop culture inspirations.
Airship Pirates is an RPG based on the songs of Abney Park (see Music), with all the steampunkery that implies - indeed, the world it describes is arguably even more steampunk than the songs, since the band describe themselves as "the only Airship Pirates" which the game understandably... changes.
Unhallowed Metropolis is set in the 22nd century, after a Zombie Apocalypse wiped out human civilization around 1900. Humanity has finally regained control of a few areas, and is going back to the last golden age of civilization, resulting in a "Neo-Victorian" culture with many elements of this.
The French Ecryme RPG is set in an alien world with strong Victorian-era aesthetics and classical steampunk technology.
Castle Falkenstein uses an essentially steampunk setting with some supernatural elements (including Engine Magick) added for a good measure.
Deadlands is essentially steampunk of the Weird West variety. It handwaves typical technological limitation of steampunk technology by introduction of 'ghostrock', a kind of coal imbued with spiritual force that can give off tremendous amounts of energy and has other properties very useful to any Mad Scientist. Also, Manitous.
In Genius: The Transgression Steampunk is the latest fashion fad among mad scientists. Humorously the actual Victorian mad scientists didn't create much in the Steampunk style but many of them did use Baroque styles based on idealised 17th century fashions (which was also not actually used by 17th century mad scientists).
Wicked: The Musical has the Clock of the Time Dragon, which is part Steampunk and part Clock Punk; the Japanese version cranked it up to ten on the Steampunk scale.
Following the 198-something revamp of Disneyland California, Tomorrowland was whole-heartedly turned into this, described as something "straight out of Jules Verne's works." Walt Disney World's Tomorrowland followed suit in the early '90s.
Also, the Tomorrowland in Disneyland Paris still is something "straight out of Jules Verne's works."
Tokyo Disneysea has a VERY steampunk section known as the Mysterious Island, also based on the works of Jules Verne.
Alton Towers, a popular English theme park, has lots of steampunk influences, mainly focusing on the theme of Victorian travel and discovery. One in-park hotel is Steampunk themed, complete with a giant airship and pith-hated gent in the lobby, and one of the park monorails is painted to appear as a locomotive carriage, full of exotic contraptions and the like.
Fans of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights nerdgasmed when they discovered that one of the scarezones in 2010 was Saws n' Steam; fissures opening in the ground cause the oceans to dry up, forcing the homicidal citizens of New Yorkshire to take up steam-powered chainsaws and carve up passerby to extract the water from their bodies. The zone notably features a MASSIVE amount of fog in a small alley, as well as chainsaw-wielding maniacs with goggles and leather on each end and a stage with a steampunk police officer monologuing about how they plan on rebuilding their city; one section of the stage has a tank full of body parts that occasionally fires streams of water at the crowd.
Said scarezone was so popular that the next year, a haunted house tie in was made. Saws n' Steam: Into The Machine actually brings the audience into one of the processing plants, though most of the steampunk design was lost in favor of a more traditional Industrial Revolution aesthetic (except for the facade and costumes).
Parc d'Asterix in France has L'Oxygenarium. Its backstory is that an inventor named Ferdinand de Teffélé has created in 1900 a machine to purify air.
Monster High has Robecca Steam, a robot daughter of a mad scientist. Her fashion style is somewhat outdated, but because it evokes Steam Punk aesthetics, it is quite chic.
Engine Machines from Shikkoku No Sharnoth are some weird form of technology that has granted Victorian England technology on par or superior to our own in many ways, especially military.
During the final arc of Casey and Andy, the titular duo are back in the time of Grover Cleveland and lacking their usual gadgets to work with for their upcoming plan. When Jenn points out anything they make with the current supplies would technically fall under this, they perk up and get right to it.
Annyseed: Welcome to the delightful home of professor Tripadiculous! Page 49 - 64. Also, Count Tarrorviene's blood machine in other pages.
Black Rose, mixed with Dark Fantasy with the main conflict being an corrupt, industrialized Steam Punk society versus a more rural territory where magic remains a dominant power.
The Continentals: A steampunk murder, mystery, scifi adventure webcomic set in post Jack the Ripper England where Continental Operative Jeffrey Tiffen Smythe and his gender bending partner the adventress Lady Fiona Fiziwigg investigating a series of brutal "mangling" murders uncovers a tangled web of intrigue, adventure—And murder! Read it here.
Broken Space features cars, starships, and buildings powered by equal parts Steampunk boilers, Clock Punk gears, and Magitek glyphs.
The titular Freakangels rely a lot on steam and Clock Punk devices in their post-apocalyptic London. Why coal is easier to locate than gasoline hasn't been explained yet.
Britain isn't known for its oil reserves but has plenty of peat and coal.
The League of S.T.E.A.M., a fantastic steampunk comedy troupe. In addition to their live performances, they have a fantastic little collection of videos on their youtube channel - including steampunk Ghostbusters parodies.
In October 2013 TV Tropes briefly changed its logo to a holiday logo featuring old fashioned lettering and a steampunk jack-o-lantern◊.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender , the Fire Nation boasts Industrial-Age innovations, such as trains and tanks powered by coal, steam, and firebending. Most of these were commissioned by extorting an expatriate Earth Kingdom inventor, the Mechanist, who dwells within a sanctuary maintained by steam-operated mechanisms and whose prize invention is a large, sophisticated steam-powered telescope. This is unsurprising, since Ghibli's works were one of the things that influenced Avatar's creators. The show got really Steam Punk-y in season two, where a colossal drilling machine was introduced. Then in the third there were jet skis, and a previously introduced balloon became zeppelins. Indeed, the original concept set the series in a futuristic environment, but the idea was scrapped in favor of an ancient feel. Nonetheless, some technology was preserved.
Almost all of the more advanced steampunk devices only work through the natural abilities of benders. The tanks, engines, and weapons are powered either by firebenders (who serve as flamethrowers for tanks that seem to use steam engines) or earthbenders (who control crawler-like machines reminiscent of caterpillars). Submarines are propelled by teams of waterbenders, and the hot air needed for zeppelins and war balloons is provided by more firebenders.
The Legend of Korra takes place in Republic City, described as a "steampunk metropolis" on the official website. Technology seen so far includes more zeppelins, cameras, cars, and speakers. However, aside from the zeppelins, most of the technology is actually very realistic when compared to tech in our 1920's, the time period that influenced the show. Whether or not the setting is as steampunk as Nickelodeon claims remains to be seen.
Later in the series we get steam(?) powered battle mechs, at least somewhat justifying the label.
In Batman: The Animated Series episode "Showdown", Ra's al Ghul describes his attempt to destroy the transcontinental railroad and bomb Washington back in the 1880s with an advanced war dirigible, complete with cannons, turrets and gatling guns. Unfortunately, his son ruins it by getting Jonah Hex involved.
The villain Mechanicles' shtick in Aladdin: The Series. Improbable-to-impossible mechanical creations of all shapes and sizes. However, they were usually Clock Punk rather than steam-based.
Brownie points for earning a mention on the Clock King page. His plans were often just as elaborate as his machines, and they relied almost entirely on things running according to schedule.
Disney's Gummi Bears is filled with Steam Punk style mechanical oddities such as airships, submarines, massive wind and water generators and the venerable quick car. All of these machines are operated without electricity.
Yet another rejected Nickelodeon pilot, Constant Payne, was steampunk mixed with some futuristic elements.
The crews of the HMS Chronabelle, HMS Amaranth and MHS Hysteria (led by Captains Mouse, Vincent M. Dantes and Edward Von Arkham, respectively) are but three of the crews of dirigible aviators sailing the skies between their hometowns and conventions.
The trope of the Airship Pirate has become so overwhelmingly prevalent and predictable that a group of fans rebelled against it by forming the Imperial Anti-Piracy Squadron or IAPS, a delightfully intimidating group who entertain and educate about developing costumes and personae whenever they're not showing off flashy uniforms and shouting in pseudo-Austrian accents.