A determined young man, hair neatly slicked to each side of a severe center part, wrestles with the equipment he’s installing in the cockpit of a rocket. His long-sleeve cotton shirt is tucked into straight-leg linen trousers, and the required suspenders are performing admirably despite the undignified positions his work necessitates. It’s his waistcoat that’s giving him fits, migrating toward his chin with each turn of the wrench. He tosses the tool, hears the metallic clang on the control center’s floor, and eases himself into the velvety armchair that faces the mammoth machine’s panel of directional dials and gesticulating gauges. He’ll return to his work in a moment, but for now, he’s content to grasp the sticks that control the rocketship’s hydraulic aft rudder and gaze skyward. Before long, that’s where he’ll be steering his steam-powered invention.
If this scenario seems like an unlikely marriage of 19th-century Victorian culture and modern-day technology, that’s because it is. The implausible idea that an 1800s-era man, however inventive, could build a rocketship capable of navigating the stars is just one of the many old-meets-new plots that come together in the literary subgenre known as steampunk.
Steampunk imagines how people in the past might have adopted technology from the future. Instead of relying on future power sources like electricity, the majority of steampunk-style contraptions are powered directly by steam. And so were many actual Victorian-era inventions, such as steam-powered pumps used to remove water from coalmines. These machines operated like all basic steam-powered inventions of the day. The heat from a fuel, such as coal or wood, caused compact liquid water molecules to expand. As the heat triggered the molecules to move away from each other, they were transformed from a liquid state into a vapor state -- steam -- and the expansion pushed a piston to power the pump.
Despite all the high-tech advances of the last 100 years, steam is still relevant as an energy source. It's used to generate electricity in fuel-burning and nuclear power plants, and has become an important addition in home appliances, like dishwashers and clothes dryers. More importantly, steam's benefits have inspired researchers to take another look at this elemental energy source and decipher how it could be harnessed for the future. Find out what some steam enthusiasts are dreaming up on the next page.