The Evolution of Steampunk Ends in a Bar


Steampunk has been a surprisingly pervasive trend for the past couple of years. It seems to pop up everywhere and it fascinates us — after all, it’s only a delicious mixture of literature, fashion, history and nerdery, some of the world’s best things. According to Google Trends, the first blips of steampunk activity on the web surfaced in 2005, but nothing the least bit significant started happening until 2007, when there was a sudden upsurge in interest. Since then, the trend — as a design aesthetic, as a cultural reaction, as a concept — has been invading movies, videogames, and hugely influencing certain branches of the DIY movement (just check out Etsy.)

So after hearing the news of the continued struggle of the world’s first steampunk bar (!!) to get a liquor license, we thought we’d offer a little moral support by taking a look at the evolution of steampunk — and how it led us, perhaps inevitably, to a bar in Brooklyn. Check out our timeline and find out where to get steamdrunk after the jump.

A note before we begin: For those not in the know, steampunk as it exists today is a cultural trend that takes stylistic cues from the Victorian era, but adds steam-power-based technological updates. The result is a romantic, elegant, brass-encrusted aesthetic that devotees take up in their dress, homes, and accessories. In a 2008 NYT article, Boston-based designer and proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop Jake von Slatt describes steampunk as “essentially the intersection of technology and romance,” and Robert Brown, the lead singer for steampunk band Abney Park describes it as “sort of a dream , the way we used to daydream. It’s like part of your childhood’s just bursting forward again.”

The term refers to a wide range of ideas and items, so it’s pretty much a catch-all, able to be be applied to everything from books to hairstyles. Steampunk themes often include thick goggles, watch parts, brass and, well, steam. Currently, steampunk creators and products abound (things that are available in steampunk style: computers, guitars, iPods) and the influence and aesthetic has spread widely even to those not involved in the lifestyle as a whole — one of our college professors had a steampunk chandelier over her dining table in her rural Vermont home. So we know that’s legit.

1987 – The term originated as an alternative to “cyberpunk” (the technologically-obsessed subgenre of science fiction set in the near-future, recognizable Earth, as opposed to far-future, Asimovian visions — see Gibson’s Neuromancer and Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell), supposedly coined in a 1987 letter by author K.W. Jeter to the science fiction journal Locus , in which he wrote:

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…

And a meme was born.

1990 – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling publish an “alternative history novel” entitled The Difference Engine to much critical acclaim. The book, set in a theoretical 1855 Victorian England where a mechanical computer has been invented, centers around a set of powerful computer punch-cards that connect the different characters. This novel was one of the first to bring the steampunk idea and influence to a wide audience, and was nominated for several prizes including the Nebula Award and the Prix Aurora.

1995 – Paul Di Filippo writes his strange and amazing Steampunk Trilogy .(Here we will stop listing steampunk-flavored novels, but be assured they are many, varying in quality like any group of books, ranging from Jules Verne to more contemporary works. For a suggested list and some more information on this read and others, we highly suggest io9’s discussion on the topic).

1995 – The wonderful, dystopian film The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus), with a steampunk wardrobe designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, shows at Cannes.

2006 – Abney Park, the (as far as we can tell) first self-proclaimed steampunk band switches some personnel around and becomes self-proclaimedly steampunk (they used to be goth). The band created a fictional backstory for themselves to explain the switch and to better fit into the steampunk aesthetic — basically the story is that their plane crashed into a time-traveling dirigible called the Ophelia. Now they’ve commandeered the vessel to become airship pirates, and the new band was created out of the survivors of the crash. At least they admit it’s fictional.

2008 – Beyoncé sports what some call out as a steampunk glove. Jury’s still out, but it is certainly suspicious, and we’d like to think she’s a Victorian-age inventor on the inside. Has steampunk finally hit the uber-mainstream?

2008 – The inagural California Steampunk Convention is held in Sunnyvale, CA. It seems like it was exactly what you’d expect — peep this video of the event for mechanical wings, light up costumes, and lots and lots of goggles. We particularly like the steampunk Ghostbusters.

2009 – The world’s first exhibition of steampunk art goes up in Oxford at the Museum of History and Science, showcasing eighteen steampunk artists from around the world. Steampunk, once a DIY project for the obsessed, is now recognized as a legit art form.

2009 – As of now, the world’s first ever steampunk bar, Way Station (after Clifford D. Simak’s 1963 science fiction novel of the same name) on Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights has only half-opened — that is, it’s been holding one-off events and special occasions — while it waits for its liquor licence. The Brooklyn Paper describes the bar as being held in”Byzantine administrative limbo by a notoriously circuitous permit process,” which has apparently been obstructing our steampunk-themed merriment for some time now.

“It’s Kafka meets Catch 22,” owner Andy Heidel said, describing his six-month, one-problem-leads-to-another adventure to gain the appropriate building and liquor approvals. “Fortunately, I haven’t woken up as a giant cockroach … yet.”

How appropriate. Heidel, a former science fiction book publicist (also appropriate) runs a blog for the bar where you can eagerly await the official opening, see pictures of the inside of the bar, and find out about their special steampunk events, including a New Year’s Eve party this Thursday with no cover! We’ll be there with our goggles on.