How Steampunk Works

Famous Steampunk Works

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Loveless from "Wild, Wild West" in a steam- powered wheelchair
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.

To learn more about steampunk and related topics, follow the links below.

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.