How Steampunk Works

Your PC has been punked -- steampunked, that is. See more computer pictures.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

Flickering gas lamps puncture a thick London fog. A metallic, rhythmic noise begins to drown out the normal sounds of the evening. An army of copper clockwork automatons comes marching out of the darkness. Overhead, a looming dirigible barely clears the tallest buildings. Brass nozzles emerge from the airship's gondola, blasting fire down upon the rooftops. This is the world of steampunk.

­The term "steampunk" originally referred to speculative fiction -- science fiction, fantasy and fictional historical tales -- set in an alternate Earth's 19th century. In this universe, Victorian inventors made great leaps in technological advancement with materials like iron and brass and using steam engines for power. From a fictional standpoint, real-life inventor Charles Babbage might have succeeded in building his proposed Difference Engine, an early computer. In reality, Babbage never saw his computational engine realized.


Today, people use the term "steampunk" beyond its literary meaning to refer to a style of art and design. There are dozens of artists who modify or create objects to achieve a steampunk aesthetic. Some of these projects have a practical purpose, while others are pieces of artwork or part of a costume. The designs merge the mundane with the exotic, and many steampunk artists have enthusiastic fans who will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for one of their creations.

What sort of people create steampunk gadgets and what tools and materials do they use? What's a typical steampunk gadget modification (mod) like? And just what do some of these strange contraptions do? Keep reading to find out.


Steampunk Materials and Tools

The enigmatic gadgeteer Jake von Slatt poses with his steampunked computer keyboard.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

The typical steampunk artist is also part inventor, part engineer and part mad scientist. Many describe themselves as gadgeteers or tinkerers. Steampunk art has a very industrial appearance. Some feel that the use of materials like metal and wood make objects appear more permanent than technology made out of plastic and other modern materials.

Many steampunk artists are self-taught and work out of basements or garages. Most treat their art as a hobby. The amount of time and effort that goes into creating a single piece of steampunk art makes it difficult to make a living from selling art alone. Some are happy to share their design and building processes, even including step-by-step instructions so that others can create similar pieces.


Steampunk artists regularly use certain materials to achieve an antiquated appearance. The most common materials in steampunk art and design include:

There aren't any stores that sell steampunk gadget kits, so most artists have to do a lot of legwork to find materials for their projects. Many scour arts and crafts shops, pawnshops, thrift stores, flea markets and antiques shops for parts. Some regularly search the Internet, particularly eBay, for material.

As for tools, every artist has his or her own favorites. For many artists, the most important tool is a drafting table or similar design space. The most intricate pieces of steampunk art require a lot of forethought in the design process. For this reason, most steampunk artists own traditional drafting tools like compasses, protractors, rulers, drafting triangles and T-squares. By drafting meticulous designs, artists can avoid problems when they're in the building phase of the­ process.

Other common tools include:

  • Band and table saws
  • Sanders
  • Drills
  • Screwdrivers
  • Hammers
  • Pliers
  • Wire cutters
  • Soldering irons
  • Metal files
  • Vises
  • Glues or epoxies

Some of these artists have created designs that turn mundane devices into gadgets that look simultaneously atiquated and high-tech. Pieces of steampunk art can be pretty expensive, but there are ways to commission a less expensive piece. One cost-cutting technique artists sometimes use is to spray metallic paint on their creations to achieve the desired look. A can of copper metallic finish might cost one-tenth as much as a sheet of copper.


Steampunk Modifications

Richard R. Nagy

Perhaps the trickiest part of modifying any gadget is changing it without breaking it or making it impossible to use. Ideally, the artist will know how each gadget works before beginning modifications. For most projects, the artist doesn't try to change the performance or function of the original device. Instead, he or she changes the gadget's appearance to look like an invention from the 19th century.

Let's look at modifying a computer keyboard as an example. To turn a modern computer keyboard into a steampunk creation, artists take inspiration from the design of old typewriters like the Underwood 5. Each artist has his or her own process, but in general, a keyboard modification requires these steps.


First, the­ artist purchases old typewriter keys, making sure the back of each key is smooth. If necessary, the artist saws or sands down any excess metal on the back of the keys.

The artist removes the computer keyboard from its plastic frame. Each and every key cap has got to go. The key cap includes the key face (the part of the key you can see) and an under-cap that snaps into the keyboard frame. Steampunk artist Jake von Slatt recommends using an IBM Model M keyboard because the under-caps are flat, which makes it easier to attach the new key faces later.

Jake von Slatt applies old typewriter key faces to the keycap in a modern computer keyboard.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

Next, the artist removes the key face from each key cap, making sure the top of the key cap is a flat surface. The artist then snaps the key cap back into place on the keyboard.

After taking measurements of the keyboard's components, the artist designs the new steampunk frame. The keyboard's layout won't change, but its appearance can undergo a drastic transformation.

The new frame's design includes a faceplate. Most companies design modern keyboards so that the keys are flush against each other. Changing the style of the key faces means that the user will see more of the keyboard's surface. A faceplate masks the plastic parts and circuitry that otherwise would be visible. The artist builds the frame and faceplate using appropriate materials like copper, steel, wood or brass.

­­Once the faceplate is in place, the artist can glue the old typewriter keys onto the appropriate key cap. Artists usually must create customized key faces for certain keys that have no typewriter analogue.

The finished product: Jake von Slatt's fully steampunked computer keyboard.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

Last, the artist assembles the frame around the keyboard. After many hours of meticulous work, he or she has created a new steampunk keyboard, just like the Victorians never had.

Of course, keyboards are just one example of gadget modification. Other devices might have more or fewer steps, but the principle is the same: Change the object's outward appearance so it looks like it could exist in a steampunk universe. Artists have created steampunk computer monitors, computer mice, electric guitars, mp3 players and watches.


Steampunk Original Creations

The RSS Telegraph Sounder
The RSS Telegraph Sounder is an example of steampunk style.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

Not all steampunk art relies on modifying existing gadgets. Some steampunk artists create completely original pieces. While most of their work tends to be ornamental, a few inventive gadgeteers have created functional -- if not practical -- devices based on the steampunk style.

Jake von Slatt designed and built a telegraph sounder that accepts data from RSS feeds, converts the information into Morse code and taps out the messages. He first researched telegraph sounders to find out what materials he would need to build his own. After buying aluminum, brass and other supplies, he used various power tools to cut and shape the raw materials. Using some hitch pins, a few washers and some electric wire, he fashioned the electromagnets needed to make the telegraph sounder work. Once he had assembled the telegraph sounder, he connected it to his computer keyboard so that the sounder intercepted the signal sent to his keyboard's LED lights. He used a program called Morse2LED to translate text into Morse code. Normally, the LED lights on his computer keyboard would blink out the encoded messages, but since he had hooked up the telegraph sounder to intercept those signals, it tapped out the messages instead.


Von Slatt's creation is a good example of steampunk. It accomplishes a high-tech task -- transmitting information from RSS feeds -- using antiquated technology. Is it practical? Not unless you're fluent in Morse code. But many people in the steampunk community praised von Slatt's inventiveness.

Other creations have little or no practical purpose beyond establishing a steampunk theme. Some are relatively simple, like a pair of goggles made out of brass and leather. Antique tools and furniture are also commonly used to create a neo-Victorian atmosphere. Many steampunk fans are do-it-yourselfers who tailor their costumes, houses or vehicles to their own tastes.

Although most steampunk gear is custom-made, a few companies offer mass-produced options. Weta Workshop in New Zealand is famous for two things: designing and building props for films like the "Lord of the Rings" series, and creating and selling collectibles. Weta's collectibes include a line of limited edition steampunk prop rayguns. Dubbed "Dr. Grordbort's Infallible Aether Oscillators," the gun designs bring to mind old science fiction pulp series like "Flash Gordon" or "Doc Savage."

The art and design of steampunk has its origins in both the history of engineering and in science fiction.


Famous Steampunk Works

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Loveless from "Wild, Wild West" in a steam- powered wheelchair
Timothy White/Warner Brothers/

There's some solace for those of us who lack either the skill to create our own steampunk gadgets or the money to purchase them from artists: steampunk fiction. There are dozens of stories, novels, films, television shows and games that represent the style.

The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells pre-date the term steampunk, but there's no denying that steampunk artists and authors draw upon their stories for inspiration. Some steampunk authors and artists directly reference characters, objects and events from their stories. Novels like "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "The Time Machine" have influenced steampunk fiction and art.


Many steampunk fans credit William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel "The Difference Engine" with popularizing the genre. Gibson and Sterling wrote about a world in which Charles Babbage succeeded in building his computer. Other inventors and engineers made further technological advances, and the British Empire became even stronger than it did in our own history.

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comic book series is a good example of the steampunk genre. Each issue contains dozens of references to novels and stories from the Victorian era. The League's members include characters like Captain Nemo from Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and Griffin from Wells' "The Invisible Man." The comics also feature steampunk gadgets and vehicles.

Other comic books in the steampunk genre include:

  • "Gotham by Gaslight," an Elseworlds comic book from DC that reimagines Batman as a Victorian-age vigilante
  • The popular Japanese comic -- and animated television series -- "Fullmetal Alchemist"
  • The Web comic "Girl Genius," by Phil and Kaja Foglio
  • Vertigo comics' "Sebastian O," which follows the adventures of an assassin in London

There are also several steampunk films, including adaptations of Verne and Wells' fiction. The 1999 film "Wild, Wild West," starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, includes several steampunk props, such as a steam-powered wheelchair and mechanical spider vehicle. The original television series that served as the inspiration for the film also involved bizarre and inventive devices.

There are also several computer, board and role-playing games set in worlds that have steampunk technology, though many are out of print and hard to find. Here's a short list:

  • "Syberia," a video game set on a strange alternate Earth filled with steampunk gadgets and puzzles
  • "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura" was a computer role-playing game set in a world where magic and technology are two opposing forces.
  • "GURPS Steampunk" is a role-playing game based on Steve Jackson's Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS), a generic set of rules that players can theoretically adapt to any setting or genre.
  • "Space 1889" is another steampunk role-playing game, and its expansion set called "Sky Galleons of Mars" is a tactical ship-to-ship combat game where players controlling steam-driven spaceships do battle with one another.

In both fiction and art, steampunk seems to have made a lasting impression. The combination of nostalgia for a romanticized era and the incorporation of amazing inventions can capture the imagination.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Babbage's Difference Engine No. 1, 1832. The Science Museum of London.
  • Bebergal, Peter. "The age of steampunk." Boston Globe. August 26, 2007.
  • Braiker, Brian. "Steampunking Technology." Newsweek. October 31, 2007.
  • Brass Goggles: The Lighter Side of Steampunk.
  • Farivar, Cyrus. "Steampunk Brings Victorian Flair to the 21st Century." All Things Considered. NPR. February 6, 2008.
  • Nagy, Richard R. ""
  • Slattery, Sean. "The Steampunk Workshop."
  • Steampunk. Science Fiction Citations.