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In most modern steampunk settings you see rudimentary use of electricity (a good example is Dishonored) however, no one seems to be too interested in advancing electric technology beyond very crude applications like electromagnets, Tesla coils and the occasional light bulb.

Obviously this is necessary for storytelling, to create a futuristic steampunk society.

What are the possible justifications for the continued relevance of steampower over electricity?

EDIT:

So rather than choosing one answer I think I'll do an edit to summarize some of the great thoughts in this (?)thread.

"Steampunk done right" - @TCAT117

This answer definitely raises some very good points, I and probably many others have not yet considered. As such it is very helpful to completely flesh out the society in a steampunk world. However I don't feel, the initial question, of how can a steampunk world "realisticaly" exist (and more importantly persist) despite the knowledge (and use) of electricity, is answered here. Furthermore this description presumes that there cannot be societal change in a steampunk world. (Treasure Planet and Wild Wild West are both broadly considered Steampunk and neither would I necessarily attribute with "victorian").

Overall I think this is an interesting take on Steampunk, but definitely not the only "valid" one.


"The AC Generator was never invented" - @Magus

This is a deceptively simple, yet effective idea. The repercussions of not having AC-technology are incredibly far reaching and would serve perfectly for preventing centralised distribution of electric energy.


"Conspiracy" - @Willk

I had thought about a solution similar to this: Cultism. The problem with this solution is, that it is unbelievable to persist over centuries. I think this would work very well in a story about societal trumoil and technological advancement.


"Money and Law" - @StephenG

Similar to Conspiracy and Cultism, this doesn't prevent technological advancement indefinitely, but would make for a great story about revolution and change.


Fuel Shortage - @TheShadowOfZama

Another extremely small change to the world with incredible effects on the developement of technology. Extreme shortage (or complete lack) of (fossil) oil, would not only set back combustion engines, but also prevent the invention of classic plastics and many medicines.


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    $\begingroup$ Steampunk is all about creating a certain mood. It's much more of an aesthetic style rather than hard sci fi. If you begin to question a steampunk world, it just breaks apart. Leave it intact, don't question it, instead go for internal consistency. That also means that the justification ideally depends on your world, your mood, your story and it doesn't have to be correct or possible in our world, just consistent with yours. While the question in itself is perhaps answerable separate from your world, please consider if that is truly what you need $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 4 '18 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call a society where steam power is everywhere and electricity is a novelty only used for 'electromagnets, tesla coils and the occasional lightbulb' futuristic. I'd call it the victorian era :) $\endgroup$ – Douwe Sep 4 '18 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ Electric is needed only (and mainly) for artificial light. Any other usage is, in steampunk, unnecessary. As there is no thing that would require electricy but couldn't be done with steam. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Sep 4 '18 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, just focus on "batteries" rather than full on electricity infrastructure. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Sep 4 '18 at 14:33
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Steampunk Done Right

A lot of steampunk stories focus too heavily on the whole steam part of the deal. You got gears and brass tubes and stuff on everything from chairs to pens to steam powered napkins. I think that this is because creating an easily identifiable genre of aesthetic is easy while creating a compelling world and set of characters is hard.

The real core of steampunk isn't the aesthetic though. Its the idea if extrapolating and magnifying the Victorian era's ideals, society, and culture so they can be examined closer. The Victorian era was one of great change and contradiction, the industrial revolution was bringing technology and science into a more mature and refined form than ever before. Yet, beneath the veneer of reason and progress very archaic cultural and social traits were still very much in play. New scientific discoveries were paired with frankly barbaric sentiments to create some really contradictory and hellish things.

A wonderful example of this can be seen in the British prisons of the era that were scientifically designed to break a mans soul coupled with a justice system that took Darwinian concepts like genetics and paired them with silly pseudo scientific practices like phrenology (the belief that personality traits can be determined by skull shape) and eugenics. The massive leap in scientific discovery that defining and examining evolution quickly warped into the concept that there was a "criminal class" of people 100% genetically predispositioned to be nothing but an impoverished criminal. They combined this scientific misconception with very very old world puritan ideals about morality and punishment. (Hard work and deprivation will make you a better person). Prisoners were kept in total isolation, not allowed to speak at all for years on end, forced to turn a giant hand crank built into the wall a set number of times per day (usually calculated to fill the inmate's entire waking hours). If the quota wasn't met they would not receive what meager bare survival rations they normally got. If an inmate got too good at turning the crank it's resistance could be dialed up to ensure that turning the crank remained a difficult and exhausting task. These cranks were not connected to anything, they were simply designed to exhaust the inmate. Imagine sitting alone in a dank room for years, or even decades, never allowed to speak or go outside, your sole purpose in life to turn a crank in the wall that will only ever get harder to turn and isn't even accomplishing any actual task. All because societies intellectuals have decided that you were born deserving to be there and that you have zero hope of ever doing anything but, all because you stole a loaf of bread.

THAT is the kind of atmosphere steampunk should embody. Brilliant scientific leaps originally intended to benefit mankind being paired up with outdated and barbaric cultural practices and in the end being used to crush a man's soul instead. It can have electrical apparatus in it and still communicate this concept.

My Point?

In a lot of instances steampunk has been dumbed and watered down into a simple set decoration when its really supposed to be imagining what would have happened if Victorian culture had persisted for longer. You can have whatever tech you want in a steampunk story and still give it that steampunk feel, just do a lot of historical research about what really made the Victorian era tick. The Victorian era was a unique time period of crazy contrasts. Poverty and unimaginable wealth. Science and barbaric ignorance. Explosive Progress and depressing stagnation. Incredible discovery and horrible misinterpretation. If you focus of this you can make a great steampunk story without having to dress everything up in brass and copper and steam engines. There really isn't any reason your steampunk story cant have people using electricity for stuff.

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    $\begingroup$ Your description of this period sounds pretty much just like 2018... $\endgroup$ – R.. Sep 4 '18 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ That's a nice writeup and imma let you finish, but the OP is clearly interested in the mainstream meaning of "steampunk". The wikipedia summary blurb doesn't mention ideals, society, or culture at all. First sentence: "Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery." I'm afraid your "The real core of steampunk" and "the kind of atmosphere steampunk should embody" are real scotsman fallacies. What are they based on? $\endgroup$ – R. Schmitz Sep 4 '18 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ "The Victorian era was a unique time period of crazy contrasts. Poverty and unimaginable wealth. " <- I think in a lot of places we still have that one. $\endgroup$ – immibis Sep 4 '18 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ "Darwinian concepts like genetics" in the Victorian era? That's quite an anachronism. $\endgroup$ – IMil Sep 4 '18 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ @TheoBrinkman Mainly because they use the word "steampunk". That word already has a meaning. I see no reason to assume that OP was thinking of the made up alternative interpretation here. I could write an answer "real steampunk is about brown horses" and for most people it's clear that OP didn't mean what I made up there. Also, the question "What are the possible justifications for the continued relevance of steampower over electricity?" only makes sense if you accept the continued relevance of steampower over electricity, as given in the universally accepted meaning of steampunk. $\endgroup$ – R. Schmitz Sep 5 '18 at 9:25
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First of all, I'm a bit rusty in the electricity concepts. So forgive me for any occasional slaughtering of physics concepts.

Second, I would recommend that you watch Tesla's documentary. It's only 53 minutes long and it gives a good view of how electricity used to be prior to the invention of the AC Motor.

The AC Motor was never invented

You don't necessarily need to say that people like Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla were never born - they might be the go-to guys when it comes to electricity. But maybe they just never made the leap to the AC Motor.

I'm assuming that your story is set in the early 1900's.

I remember that the documentary clearly states that DC is a viable option, but it is not viable for long distances - which is where the AC Motor came in. So electricity exists but it's very local, probably present only in big cities (ironically, kind of like electric cars today), since the infrastructure needed for DC engines to power a whole country would be ludicrous.

All that's left is for you to come up with a reasonable explanation for steam engines to be widespread.

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    $\begingroup$ Not really ironic as modern car batteries (and various other components) are DC :) $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Sep 4 '18 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ The irony I meant was in the sense that electric cars are still not a common thing today and "restricted" to specific places (like Califorina). Of course you can have your recharger at home, spare batteries and generall stuff that might aid you in a pinch, but it's not common for you to see an "electricity station", for example, in case your car's battery is running low. $\endgroup$ – Magus Sep 4 '18 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jgreenwell but you charge them with rectified AC. It is the distribution part that gets difficult with DC. And if course electronics is based on generating 1s and 0s with square shaped "alternating" current... $\endgroup$ – Stian Yttervik Sep 4 '18 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably you mean AC generators? Electric motors convert electricity into motion, electric generators convert motion into electricity. So an AC generator would be used to create AC electricity (which is what you want for long-distance transmission). $\endgroup$ – KillingTime Sep 4 '18 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is an excellent solution: remove the "distribution" benefit of electricity, and now anywhere you need it you need a small steam engine to generate it. And if you've already got said engine, you'd probably use it directly to power whatever the electricity would have, with the exception of things like lightbulbs of course. $\endgroup$ – Skyler Sep 5 '18 at 14:09
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Conspiracy.

https://medium.com/@zaron3/nikola-tesla-and-the-conspiracy-against-water-powered-cars-a1e0216c8a23

In the post-Einstein world, Tesla’s alternative theory of energy is now considered scientific heresy. Only the true believers still hold their faith in Tesla's view of the universe. However, following his methods, these garage tinkerers and shade tree physicists seem to work electrical miracles. And they claim this is the real reason why the government won’t let them build water-powered cars. It’s all part of a century-long fight that goes back to Tesla and his former boss, Thomas Edison. Genius versus Industry. And now, a century later, these true believers and electrical outlaws argue that rather than follow the lead of the electric car company named for their hero, we need to make everyone understand how a water-powered car works, and redesign our modern industry according to Tesla’s alternative theory of energy. Imagine everything you know about electricity is wrong. Now ask yourself: why would anyone want to suppress this truth? Who benefits?

In the steampunk world, Big Steam and the industries behind it have a monopoly and they work to keep it that way. Electricity is the realm of crackpots, swindlers, and dangerous foreign scientists. Electricity does make a fine method of execution, granted - look at that smoke! But for safe everyday uses, there are smiling, well dressed, vaguely ominous men who make sure you are getting your steam and steam producing apparatus and not venturing out into dangerous experimentation. High scifi makes for excellent social commentary, and the obvious parallel is the campaign of Big Auto against public transportation, and Big Oil against clean energy.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with conspiracies of this sort is that The Conspiracy of Big (Whatever) isn't omnipotent...if it was, why are they working behind the scenes instead of just outright running things? And when it comes to technology, unless you have a single world government, there will be a country somewhere that sees the military advantages of some form of new tech, and then the cat isn't just out of the bag, it's shredded the bag. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Sep 4 '18 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison That's easy to explain. The people who are "just outright running things" are targets. The people running things behind the scenes know this, and deliberately don't expose themselves that way. They also realize the advantages of not having a single world government, including the public perception that the lack thereof means they don't exist. As an added bonus, the more evidence you have that they don't exist, the more the True Believers think that just means you're working for the conspiracy. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Sep 5 '18 at 15:56
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Let's go the way of all barrier to tech advancement : money and law.

Money

You have to have money to make money and if the people with money won't give you theirs (OK, lend not give) because they are e.g. very conservative and don't see a reason to create change in a core industry (steam) then you can't invest in R&D, factories and manufacturing and marketing to get your swanky new e.g. electric light bulbs going.

Law

For many a long decade the entire industrial revolution (steam powered, as it happens) was held up (slowed down) by a legal patent on steam engines held and very, very aggressively pursued by the one James Watt, inventor and, as it turns out, greedy egomaniac. All courtesy of patent law and lawyers. Watt would threaten to sue anyone investing in new steam development, his competitors and so on.

Suitable patent laws in your world would happily screw up any attempt to introduce widespread use of electricity.

These things can combine to prevent effective development of electricity commercially and would limit it to applications where it was required.

Also keep in mind electricity has to be generated and steam engines can do that (and did).

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    $\begingroup$ Patent law isn't a foolproof bar to progress in all cases. Thomas Edison tried to hold up motion pictures in much the same way, which is why Hollywood became Hollywood - because it was clear on the other side of the country from him! Which could be an interesting story idea all in itself, if one part of the world gains a technical advance that's illegal everywhere else, and they have to cope with the sudden imbalance. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Sep 4 '18 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence Not foolproof in those cases does not mean the OP can't make his world's patent laws and procedures a lot tougher nut to crack. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 4 '18 at 12:08
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Fuel shortage

What 'killed' steampower as the dominant way to obtain power was Kerosene,Gasoline,Diesel,... Combustion engines tended to be more usefull than steam ones once properly developed. World War 1 was a big reason for this. With combustion engines faster armored cars, tanks and aeroplanes were possible.

There's no way to make an airplane, especially early ones fly with steampower. Cars were possible, but not really all that great and steamtanks were tried and found to be...unsatisfactory.

There will be people saying, but you can create oil from coal. True, but that process is not very economical, especially in the early days. The only reason people use that process is because they can't get oil because of reasons. Experts believe North Korea for example wants nuclear power plants to get them the electricity needed for this process.

Solar panels existed, but well early ones sucked and even today I am not a fan of them for anything but private and limited commercial use. Definitely not to keep factories running or to keep the lights in a city on. The sun doesn't always shine after all and when it does it doesn't always shine as bright.

You could make fuel out of soybeans. Ethanol fuel or some other biofuel, but once more that is not a complete problem solver. Ethanol based fuel sucks in cold climates and it requires a huge amount of crops. Not every nation can use and obtain biofuels as easily as for example Brazil does.

All those things however have one thing in common and that's that none of them will be as good a fix as oil was and is in real life.

As for electricity. Do you mean electronics such as advanced computers? If so there are plenty of reasons why those things never took off. A couple inventions involved in those were pure accidental such as the transistor.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just FYI, at least one steam aircraft was successfully flown in the 1930s (Besler Steam Plane), and steam-powered cars and farm tractors did exist and work quite well, although never beating gas/diesel-powered equivalents in popularity. $\endgroup$ – Catgut Sep 5 '18 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ I completely forgot about the Besler Steam Plane. Thank you for reminding me. It was a pretty cool plane as well. $\endgroup$ – TheShadowOfZama Sep 5 '18 at 15:22
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There's some muddled history of technology here

tl;dr : This is what actually happened in the real world. Steam and electric technology co-existed for around a century.

Both the OP and some of the respondents seem to be under the impression that in real world history, there was little or no overlap between steam technology and electric technology. This is not true.

Not remotely true.

Although the steam era began in the late eighteenth century, what we think of as the Victorian steampunk type technology really kicked off in the 1830s railway boom. (Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837.) Steam never really finished -- it is still used today for many important applications, such as baseline power generation. However it began to be replaced for mainstream transport applications (motor vehicles, locomotives, and ships) only post-World War One, roughly 90 years later.

(Earlier than this, some ships had become oil-fired, but they had oil-fired steam: i.e. a steam engine with the boiler heated by oil instead of coal. The first petrol-fired motor vehicles came out in the 1880s, but didn't become more economically important than other forms of transport until the 1920s.)

In contrast, the electric era arguably begins with Galvani and Volta's experiments in the mid-eighteenth century, but starts to go beyond experiments to useful devices in ... the early 1830s, with the construction of the first regular (short distance) telegraph service. The first DC motor powerful enough for industrial applications was produced in ... the 1830s. The first electrically powered vehicle was Jacobi's motorboat, which in a public demonstration carried 14 people across a wide river in: 1838.

The earliest electric lighting demonstrations were by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1802, but practical electric lighting systems were developed in the late 1870s/early 1880s -- and in many places they were adopted very rapidly: contrary to the classic by-line of a "winter of gaslight and fog", by the time Jack the Ripper struck in 1888, most streets of Whitechapel were electrically lit. (The dynamos were steam-powered, and the boilers were fired by garbage: under the recent Public Health Act, London had also started the world's first regular garbage collection service, and lighting the streets seemed the most useful way to use the refuse.)

After several earlier attempts, practical telegraphy started in 1844 -- first used to catch a murderer in 1845 -- and it exploded: in the first 6 years, 20,000 kms of cable were laid in the US alone. Not only did this revolutionise communications, but gave a huge impetus to allied industries like wire-drawing, rubber processing, battery manufacture, and electrical instrumentation. Lord Kelvin's "Victorian Internet" laid the first transatlantic cable in 1866 (after a failed attempt in 1857), and within 8 years had enabled practically instantaneous communications between all developed parts of the world; the first telegram direct from Britain to Japan (the other side of the world) was in 1870.

To cut a long story short, from the 1830s to the 1920s, electric and steam technologies were complementary technologies developing in parallel, mainly for different purposes. And indeed, both still exist today.

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  • $\begingroup$ To emphasize the point, the 1857 transatlantic cable was laid by the modified HMS Agamemnon, the first Royal Navy battleship designed and built to have steam engines, and the USS Niagara, a US Navy screw frigate. The 1866 cable was laid by the SS Great Eastern, an icon of steamships. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Sep 5 '18 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ this answer does help to build a beautifull and fleshed out world, however it does miss the point of my question: How can we explain superiority of steampower over electricity. Because despite the brief coexistence of steam and electricity, ultimately electricity has far surpassed steampower in its versatility and efficiency. $\endgroup$ – Christoph Fischer Sep 6 '18 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ Actually you asked "How can you justify a steampunk society in which electricity exists (etc.)"; which is justified because it is what really happened! Not a "brief coexistence" but the entire steampunk era. $\endgroup$ – Securiger Sep 6 '18 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ This question "How can we explain superiority ..." is straightforward but alas the answer is dull. Mostly there was no superiority; both were used, for different applications. The main area where they directly competed was factory & commercial power distribution. There, steam was far more efficient until Westinghouse developed AC network theory around 1887. It then took 20 - 30 yrs to completely phase out the old, expensive plant investments. Other people had worked on AC before; it was the network theory that mattered. So bump off George, and electrification may have been delayed for decades. $\endgroup$ – Securiger Sep 6 '18 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ I admit, I could have made the "superiority" part clearer. $\endgroup$ – Christoph Fischer Sep 7 '18 at 7:08
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Everyone thinks it's dumb cause Coolguy McScience face said so.

This is arguably what happened to create the fat free craze in American food products. This is also what happened when Edison showed that AC was dangerous. This is very similar to what happened when that American Chemist was convinced that getting a million percent of vitamins would make you immortal - that's why vitamins don't just have 100% of what you need.

Science is discovered by scientists, used by Engineers, and made mainstream by the public. It doesn't matter if something is technically better than something else if the public doesn't pic up on it. If you get a cool science guy to warn against it and no other cool science guys call them out on it, or if the science guy who does bring it up isn't cool enough then the technology just won't pick up.

You could easily make electricity a pointless method of energy transfer in your universe by just having a bunch of people say it is. These people could say it's bad simply because they're wrong or because they like steam money. It really doesn't matter that much after the general public agrees it's bad.

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You need to introduce the problem of electricity transportation. If the cost (ohm resistance) is so great that it is cheaper and/or easier to power by steam, electricity will only be used when it is the last resort. You can't use steam to make a light bulb glow so electricity must be used there. You can have devices that crackle with electricity generated as a byproduct. But for whatever reason, it is nearly impossible to move that current greater than 100 feet.

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