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As part of my Worldbuilding experiment, I'm creating a steampunk world. I intend for most of the technology to run on classic steampunk mechanisms - mostly mechanical contraptions.

However, electricity would be of some use to the society, particularly for things like lighting deep underground. Is it likely that a(n) (underground) steampunk society would discover electricity and develop it such that it would become widespread?

Keep in mind that this is set in and around the year 1895, in underground London.

Part of the reason I'm discussing the adaptation is that a steampunk society this far advanced might have developed very efficient ways of power transmission (?), so electricity might not be as big a leap for them as it was for us.


I've read the Everness series, which partially focuses on a steampunk society with electricity - or "electropunk" - but I'm not convinced that a society would develop like this.

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  • $\begingroup$ Looking at this, I imagine lightbulbs would be widespread. Morse code and telegraphs would be in use. Telephones would be arising and the first practical electric motor had just been made in 1895. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_historic_inventions#1880s $\endgroup$ – Varrick Aug 25 '15 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ Wait a minute... Is your society using lightning deep underground? Whatever for? War? Sounds like they're more advanced than we are! :) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 25 '15 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Ack! Typo. Fixed. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 25 '15 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ Light is provided by burning gas in most Steampunk settings. Similar to Victorian London streets. As I commented on Green's answer, you need to consider why wasn't electricity considered when developping the Steam power engines. Maybe, in your world, producing electricity isn't as simple/cheap as it is in ours. Or the key discoveries were not done until much later. But then it is likely to create a new revolution, where steam will be left out. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Aug 26 '15 at 11:54
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Yes because the requisite ideas and machines were already available in 1895. Steampunk is generally held to be be in 19th century Victorian England or the American West at the same time. The 19th century saw a huge leap in understanding and application of electromagnetism.

The first real electric motor built by Prussian Moritz Jacobi started operating in May 1834 started operation. The three phase electric generator came a few decades later:

The years 1885 until 1889 saw the invention of the three-phase electric power system which is the basis for modern electrical power transmission and advanced electric motors. A single inventor for the three-phase power system can not be named. There are several more or less well known names who were all deeply involved in the inventions (Bradley, Dolivo-Dobrowolsky, Ferraris, Haselwander, Tesla and Wenström). (source)

Edison applied for a patent on "Improvement In Electric Lights" in 1878. He had bulbs that would last 1200 hours by 1880. Longer lasting tungsten filaments didn't show up till 1906 though. The first flourescent lamp appeared in 1901 by Peter Copper Hewitt so it wouldn't take much to handwave that forward 6 years. (Just cover your eyes. This early lamp had significant UV output.)

All of the elements required for electric underground illumination are present in 1895 without any special handwaving or alternate histories. If this question is for a giant underground city under London, then this creates a very large market that would motivate inventors and manufacturers to create better products on larger scales.

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  • $\begingroup$ What if these men were not born, or chose to work in different fields? Given the rapid development around 1850, Tesla, for instance, might have turned his efforts elsewhere, developing more efficient steam power. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 25 '15 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ If this electropunk story branches from reality in 1850, then you'd still have Watt's, Kelvin's, Seebeck's and some of Faraday's innovations. I'd like to think that there was something inherently interesting about electricity that capture the attention of Maxwell, Tesla and Edison. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 25 '15 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know the stories behind why Maxwll, Tesla and Edison went into electricity instead of steam though I assume they would have ended up there anyway. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 25 '15 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ A traditional Steampunk society can only occur if changes to our world appeared much before 1850. As you mentioned, by then many important discoveries for the electricity were made. And the reason is developped to steampunk is due to the lack of competition or that steam was by far the best source of power. In 1850, that was already not so clearly the case. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Aug 26 '15 at 11:50
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Running lots of coal powered steam engines (what are all these mechanisms being run?) in a mined out cavern complex seems very risky - not only directly from fires and explosions in confined spaces, but also for environment concerns (consuming oxygen and emitting exhaust). Even without a lot of combustion going on in London Below, the ventilation system would be truly incredible for any significant population to be living in a giant coal mine. This could be mitigated though just using massive boilers on the surface transmitting the mechanical power down through the caverns via cables or perhaps jerker lines, but not really any steam engines in the underground (much less basic things like cooking stoves or fireplaces).

I would expect that electrification of their town would be significantly more advanced that the rest of the world - the benefits of eliminating combustion in such enclosed spaces would make electrification a priority. If they had factory equipment, rock crushers, etc. which required significant amounts of power, I would expect it to be located at the bottom of a major vertical shaft through which mechanical power could be transmitted from a power plant in London Above. Any smaller application (household or office use), or anything down a corridor which did not have an easy line up to the surface, would probably be electrical. They would be pioneers of electrification out of necessity of eliminating as much combustion as possible.

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These are just alternate time lines where the history is what ever it needs to be in order to support the world as it is. If it's not possible, then you just change what ever you need to change in order to MAKE it possible.

"steam punk" means that they have advance steam engine machines, but not electricity.

What does "Electro punk" mean? They have electric motors but not electronic computers? Or possibly they need electric cars because they don't have petroleum? In other words, they have some arbitrary set of technology and continue making inventions within the limitations of that technology, pushing the boundaries of what can be done within those limitations.

You need to be more specific about what technology they DON'T have because currently, almost EVERYTHING we use is already powered by electricity.

I'm guessing that you just want some secret laboratory in the sewer that is full of Tesla coils? And some semi-crazy scientist who believes that electricity is the future? This sounds like the setting of the original 'Frankenstein's monster' storey, which is not really refered to as "electro-punk" as such. It was probably based of actual egocentrics who really did exist.

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