Steaming into the Past

Posted 9/4/14

Anyone who as been curious about media references to “Steampunk” can get a broader understanding of this recent form of manufactured nostalgia.

Nostalgia is typically defined as a longing …

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Steaming into the Past


Anyone who as been curious about media references to “Steampunk” can get a broader understanding of this recent form of manufactured nostalgia.

Nostalgia is typically defined as a longing affection for the past, or a place in the past where life seemed less troubled and more happy. Most cynics would say that time and place never existed and it is only a trick of memory to believe the past was better than the present.

Apparently, that cynicism hasn’t infected the Steampunk movement, where an alternate past is actively sought in fashion, attitude and technology. In its simplest form, Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery. A computer, for instance, is powered by steam. Airplanes fly by steam power.

“Steampunk is a lot of things,” said Mary Lee Partington, a member of the musical group Pendragon and an organizer of the “SAM Steampunk Soiree” to be held Saturday evening at the Slater Mill complex in Pawtucket. “It is a literary form. It is a way of dressing that values objects of technology, especially from the Victorian Era. It is a fascination with the culture of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.”

Partington said it is a way of imagining the world that combines elements of history with a great deal of imagination. It is as if high concept ideas such as time travel had been achieved with the technology of H.G. Wells’ era. The time travel machine in the movie, “The Time Machine” (1960), is an example of the Steampunk imagination. It combines a parabolic reflector with what looks like a Victorian-era conveyance, as if the future could be accessed with a one-horse-open-sleigh. Wells, who was an astute observer of the industrial revolution, often combined electricity with machines in a way that did not anticipate the transistor or the microchip. He imagined that, somehow, the energy sources available in his day could power machines to do wondrous things that the average Victorian would be impressed with.

Partington, who is a veteran member of the local folk group Pendragon, likened the steampunk way of life to that of historical re-enactors, like King Richard’s Faire and other people who like to immerse themselves in the past. It’s not exactly being crazy but it entails an element of obsession.

“Steampunk is for some, like other creative genres, an escape to simpler living,” according to Rich Watrous, a writer and veteran of the movement, “or an open door to more advanced thinking than what we know now.”

Watrous has more fully explained the movement in an article in Motif at

“Steampunk has developed over the last 35 years, from a small niche of fans favoring certain themes in books that merged science and history,” he wrote. “It has grown in recognition as greater numbers of participants have adopted or modified its themes as a way of self-expression and a creative outlet. Today, it can be found in comics, graphic novels and in electronic and role-playing games.”

Partington said that the Slater Mill, as the birthplace of American Industry, is the perfect setting for the steampunk event.

“This was where they used waterpower to start the industrial revolution,” she said.

She said they have a fashion sense that combines bustle and hoop skirts with bustiers worn outside of their clothes. Steampunk features Victorian fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Other examples of steampunk are alternative history, like present day lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, and mechanical computers like Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, considered the theoretical forerunner of the modern computer. Several works of art and fiction that loom large in the genre were produced before the genre had a name, like “The Aerial Burglar” by Percival Leigh (1844) in literature. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), may be the most important early film to represent steampunk as a genre. (Curiously, H.G. Wells hated the film for its fanciful machines that seemed to move a lot to no certain effect. Even more curious, both liberals and right-wingers saw their philosophy reflected in the film and the legendary Nazi propagandist, Leni Reifenstahl, considered it the movie that most inspired her pseudo-documentaries). Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil” (1985) was a later but still early influence on steampunk. In television, it was “The Wild Wild West” (1965–69), where highly mechanized gadgets with sophisticated purposes proliferated.

According to several sources, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue-in-cheek variant of cyberpunk. It seems to have been coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by certain writers. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel “The Difference Engine” (1990) describes an alternative Victorian era where Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's proposed steam-powered computer was actually built. An anthology of steampunk fiction was released in 2008, by Tachyon Publications; edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and appropriately entitled “Steampunk.”

In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate history version of an actual historical period) in which the Industrial Revolution has already begun but electricity is not yet widespread.

“You can see the lineage of steampunk,” she said. “And how it is now used recreationally to cement our connection to the past while still making room for the creative impulse of today.” Perhaps the best way to understand steampunk is to go to the SAM FEST 2014, outdoors at Slater Mill, Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

There will be music from Chifferobe, The Bosch Ensemble and The Michelle Cruz Big Band. There will be a beer garden and food trucks from the Pawtucket Rotary and artisans and vendors of the unique, quirky, historic and futuristic,

Admission to the festival is free but the SAM Steampunk Soiree starts at 7 p.m. and cost $10. The music is by Alec K. Refern and the Eyesores. For more information, call 725-8638 or email


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  • DAWNsne

    Thanks Joe for sharing our Pawtucket adventures and exploration of the Steampunk lifestyle in last weeks article. The adventure is ongoing in Pawtucket as the Red Fork Empire's Embassy To Steampunk continues the education of the the masses at the DAWN At The GRANT Art Gallery, 250 Main Street, Pawtucket RI on Saturday September 20th from 2 to 8pm. All are welcome with or without creative attire.

    Photos Used By Rich Watrous aka the Mayor Of Mystic Manor, founder of the Black Topper Society.

    Facebook for further updates.

    Thursday, September 11, 2014 Report this