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Everybody loves steampunk. Without reading the Wikipedia page, the main idea of steampunk is a world (usually 19th century or thereabouts) where steam power is used universally, and computers as we know them have not yet been developed, but many of the things that we take for granted (cars, airtravel, sometimes even steam-powered computers) are still there, but are powered by steam instead of whatever we use today.

The way I look at it, our world could have been steampunk if the problems we needed (or wanted) solved would not have been solved by the combustion engine and the computer.
What would need to happen to the history of science to produce a 21st century steampunk world?

  • What specific scientific discoveries (if any) would need to be skipped1 in order to have steam remain mainstream? What inventions would need to disappear so that computers would have not taken over the world?
  • What would need to happen to the history of science and invention to allow a full-blown steampunk world, today?

1 Possible story point -- "suppressed" instead of "skipped," allowing for a computer underground in a steampunk world. .....maybe.

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    $\begingroup$ Not really an answer, but take a look at an old flash game called steambirds. Basically, someone invented a viable cold fusion steam engine (to replace coal, I suppose) and with unlimited free energy coming from steam, history took a different path. $\endgroup$ – STT LCU Nov 7 '14 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder Steam power's size and relative inefficiency may make it more difficult to use machinery to extract coal, oil and gas reserves. Also, without computers many of the techniques for finding oil wells would be out of the question (ground-penetrating radar, for example) so the scale of the problem would be limited by our ability to extract fuel. Perhaps we'd end up with severe fuel shortages forcing the establishment of a massive sustainable lumber industry to produce fuel, meaning that we just recycle (coal > smoke > tree > repeat) rather than releasing extra carbon from coal and oil. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Nov 7 '14 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ Also not really an answer, but I think this needs to be addressed - Steam Power is only one aspect of Steampunk, it generally also includes Victorian-Era styling. Are you looking for that as well? $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Nov 7 '14 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Zibbobz Hmm....I think including that would make this question way too broad; besides, it's tagged technological-development, so it's really just about the tech. Maybe as a new question? $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 7 '14 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Steampunk as usually described usually includes a bit of magic/fantasy, at the very least delivering impossible efficiencies and in many cases adding in explicitly Speculative Fiction elements. The Steampunk style has its own problems -- those in such a culture would not fetishize it any more than we do electronics; few of us wear nonfunctional computer chips as decoration (though they can be quite pretty)... Basically, you could certainly get a steam culture, but the -punk aspect is deliberately fantastic in the literal sense. Which is fine; it's fun. Not (usually) realistic, though. $\endgroup$ – keshlam Nov 8 '14 at 14:45

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What inventions would need to have never happened? Transistors and the Internal Combustion Engine.

You say "computers have not yet been developed... computers are still there"

The only reason electronic circuits are so compact is transistors and nearly everything depends on them. It is entirely possible to make a working computer out of hoses and valves. There is a plumbing equivalent for every logic gate, and you may wish to look into fluidics

There are plenty of steam fired power plants, nearly every nuclear or coal power plant for example. There would still be electricity.

You note cars would still exist, there actually were steam powered cars. Aircraft would almost certainly be lighter than air, like zeppelins or blimps. The power to weight ratio on a steam engine is far too low.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, great answer!! .....I can't believe that this question got answered amongh the first four views!!!! Awesome :)) $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 7 '14 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding aircraft I would say it depends. The steam engine in Carl Richard Nyberg's Flugan had a better power to weight ratio than the Wright engine (10 hp/18 kg vs 12 hp/77.3 kg). $\endgroup$ – liftarn Nov 7 '14 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ Similarly, there would no fluids that give off explosive vopors. It is hard to imagine a world without kerosene or gasoline however. And a diesel engine can burn almost anything. I have a hard time with 'suspension of disbelief' when the conceit is, "No one thought of it." For example, imagine having fireworks, and no one thinking to augment the chemicals to make a weapon. Versus, "you mix up the chemicals and... nothing happens." Physics is just a little different in that world. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Nov 7 '14 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ On power to weight ratio. Examples do not have the same weight as counter-examples. If I say "all Scots have red hair" I could give thousands of examples. It only takes one individual with brown hair to prove me wrong. You have a counter-example from @SVilcans. Your follow-up examples are more red-headed Scots... I'm as surprised as the next guy, but apparently it is possible for a steam engine to achieve better power to weight ratio than a conventional engine that actually achieved flight. Of course, endurance is also a desirable quality in aircraft... $\endgroup$ – DeveloperInDevelopment Nov 8 '14 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ @evandentremont the page you linked to seems to disagree with you - the 1933 Travel Air 2000 custom-built steam variant listed for example... $\endgroup$ – DeveloperInDevelopment Nov 8 '14 at 13:14
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As I understand the question, you are asking what would need to be removed from common knowledge in our world to create a steampunk world, right?

The primary difference between steampunk worlds and our world boils down to something quite simple: oil.

Obviously enough, if oil were not as cheep and plentiful as it has been in our world, the internal combustion engine will never take off because gasoline will remain prohibitively expensive.

But the main difference between our world and a steampunk world isn't the internal combustion engine or computers. It's the plastics that are everywhere now. Without plastic as a building material, the traditional steampunk look of brass, wood, glass, and steel remain the primary building blocks. Electrical wiring has to remain thick and bulky without the plastic insulation that prevents shorts. Wood and brass are the default choice for light-weight building materials, simply because there are no lighter and cheaper plastics to replace them.

And of course, plastic is completely dependent on oil.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good point. No cheap, plentiful petroleum means no cheap, plentiful plastics and no cheap, plentiful gasoline. With about 45MJ/kg, refined petroleum is one of the most compact, potent and stable sources of chemical power. You can make an internal combustion engine with other chemical fuels, but the power-to-weight ratio and economics will be lower allowing steam engines to look advantageous. You could also eliminate aluminum as a means of making engines lighter. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Nov 9 '14 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ I like this better than mine! Transistors and Oil. $\endgroup$ – evandentremont Nov 11 '14 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @evandentremont - I don't worry too much about the transistors; modern circuitry only gets as small as it does because of clean rooms and clean rooms get tricky without plastics. Without plastics which don't readily decay and won't support bacterial life, the only other material left that could potentially work is stainless steel. That would get expensive quick, and you'd still be left with the problem of how to let people interact with anything. Without plentiful oil reserves, I figure a steampunk-world wouldn't even try to go that route. $\endgroup$ – Brian_Drozd Nov 11 '14 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ There is no reason electric engines shouldn't be possible in a steampunk-esque world. The limitation is, again, the lack of a suitable thin non-conducting material; wires have to be think, and the batteries needed for an electrical engine would be bulky. There is a part of a modern batteries called a separator - it keeps electrical parts in one cell separate from another, and those are made of polymers - thin specially designed pieces of plastic. (Surprising just how widespread plastic is, isn't it?) $\endgroup$ – Brian_Drozd Nov 12 '14 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ Plastics can be made from a wide variety of substances, not just petroleum. Milk solids, shrimp shells, coal tar, vegetable oil, etc. etc. can all make plastics - we use petroleum and natural gas because they are the cheapest/purest sources for making a wide variety of substances, but not the only sources. Likewise diesel fuel can be made from any kind of oil - waste oil from frying food is a rather popular source of biodiesel. Cutting out petroleum isn't going to make as large an impact as you seem to think. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Sep 14 '15 at 16:55
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You might be surprised but you don't need electronic components to have a computer. Mechanic is all you need: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/3724/147

Miniaturization is harder but it's still a computer.

Prior to the combustion engine, most energy was produce with coal. Without this invention, most cars would have to use coal instead. Unless they are electric cars.

Electricity can still be produce with coal and don't forget about the nuclear energy. They also produce power with steam.

The main advantage of the combustion engine is it's efficiency. It's small enough to fit in a car. it's more complicated with a steam engine but one could speculate that it is possible to come up with something.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't believe this question got two answers in the first four views. You guys are great :)) $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 7 '14 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ There are also oil-powered steam engines, so you don't necessarily need coal for it. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Nov 9 '14 at 17:49
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This is the subject of my favorite sci-fi series, the Everness trilogy, by Ian McDonald. I hope I can draw from there for inspiration on my first point (cars).

  • Cars: Sure, you could go for the classic steam-powered car, but I think electric would be more practical. As evandentremont and Vincent pointed out in their answers, steam power plants are still feasible generators of electricity. Electric cars are simpler than steam-powered ones, and, in this case, just as efficient.
  • Airplanes: I'll go along the same lines here. Electric propeller-powered aircraft could be ubiquitous. They're quite (like the cars) and efficient.
  • Computers: The idea of a steam-powered computer really made me laugh. Seriously, though, if we consider the steam-to-electricity route, underground illegal computers are always possible.

What specific scientific discoveries (if any) would need to be skipped in order to have steam remain mainstream?

I'm thinking along the lines of power generation. Nuclear, solar, hydropower, geothermal, wind, etc. Basically, all forms of non-fossil-fuel power generation would have to be skipped over. It wouldn't be hard for nuclear, but solar and wind could be issues. Why solar? I'm thinking concentrated solar power. It would be obvious to a race using steam.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer! ....I've read a few steampunk novels where they had computers, one even had tablets! ....though none of them explained exactly how that happened (and one of them used magic to fill in the gaps....) $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 7 '14 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need electricity for computers. Check out the mechanical Difference Engine and Analytic Engine, both invented by Charles Babbage. 100% mechanical. And intended to be driven by steam. There are Lego and Mechano versions of both. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Nov 7 '14 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TonyEnnis - Yeah, I've heard of them. Seriously, though, I hadn't considered that. Nice idea. You could add that as an answer. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 7 '14 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, but it does not answer your question. In some of these comments I have merely augmented much more complete answers. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Nov 7 '14 at 21:21
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The other answers have covered some interesting points, especially regarding non-traditional computers. To cover a different angle:

How would we get to a steam powered world?

Had heating of water through nuclear means been discovered in the 1850s and as much scientific effort expended on that front as was spent on the novelty of electricity we would likely have miniturized Thorium nuclear steam generation before the first world war. Had this happened it is hard to say if the health effects would have been a public outcry given the generally accepted unhealthy practices of the time (ie we get more tumors than our parents generation but far les emphazema).

As an additional angle to build to the steampunk world, nuclear generation of Hydrogen gas is cheap and efficient so gas to fill zepplins would be readily available.

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    $\begingroup$ Flammable zeppelins that go bang, but yes! Top hat off to you sir. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Nov 9 '14 at 23:46
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Typically what led to the disappearance of steam engines is its replacement by internal explosion engines, which are the direct result of the discovery of large Oil fields, resulting in internal explosion engine being easier to implement and more efficient than steam engines. (Although the first Otto cycle was first built using coal gas, I don't think coal gas is a very convenient fuel. It was used at some point during WWII to replace petroleum, though.)

Without oil, until electricity and nuclear I don't see what would have replaced steam engine.

However, oil is typically produced by the same means coal is, so it is unlikely that a world with coal mines would not eventually strike oil.

Early discovery of radioisotope thermic generator could explain the lack of further interest in other sources of power.

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The biggest problem with steampunk is electronics - why would things be steam powered instead of electric? If electronics are developed, steam would be relegated to power generation just as it is in the real world. If no electronics, by what sense is this a 21st century civilization (rather the hallmark of a modern society)?

If you include a greater knowledge and use of mechanical power transmission (good info here), steam certainly could be used for a great many more applications than we tend to use today. If you include cable or push-rod drives for direct transmission of mechanical power, we could have little steam engines practically anywhere. There are losses involved any time you change from mechanical (power plant turbines) into electric, and then back from electric to mechanical (your motor). Going directly from mechanical spinning of the steam engine to mechanical applications (transmitted by rope drives or push rods) is generally more efficient (and cheaper/easier to maintain and repair than electronics).

Computers, as some have mentioned, do not really require electricity - that just makes them significantly faster. Computation can be done mechanically - there are water integrators capable of differential equations, and the earlier punch-card computers were mechanically driven. Things just work so much faster on electricity rather than mechanical movements.

Doing away with the internal combustion engine and reaching a mid-20th century level of civilization (just replace all IC engines with slightly less-efficient steam engines, though larger aircraft are going to have to be lighter than air) is very plausible, but something equivalent to current developed societies cannot happen without electronics (and once you have a decent understanding of electricity, steam goes away quickly).

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I would scavenge on @evandentremont's answer a little and say:

  1. Electricity does not conduct in wires, and
  2. There are no liquids that give off explosive vapors.

The 1st item means there will be no way to distribute electricity, at the very least. But you could have a 'pneumatic internet' etc.

The 2nd item means there will be no IC engines, which really means no engines with a high horsepower-to-weight ratio.

This world would be driven by steam.

I would recommend that the reason that electricity and IC engines don't exist isn't because no one thought of building them, but because the physics does not work.

Consider The Game of Thrones TV show. They have been stuck in a late medieval situation for a thousand years or more. Given we were in that phase for about 100 years, tops, it makes suspension of disbelief a little harder. I can't help but think, "What's wrong with them?"

edit - the limitations above would not preclude modern machine guns. So you may need to tweak the physics a little more.

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Easy way to get to steampunk world is to not allow for creation of huge amounts of fossil fuels in carboniferous period. Maybe planet started with less carbon overall. Less water. Maybe condition were not right and organics pertified as kerogen and not oil, and it is not effective to mine it for energy. No coal, no oil - no cars. So civilization started as powered by wood and peat bog heat, and upgraded to other sources of energy - hydro, wind, solar, and eventually nuclear.

In such world, you can have transistor, computers etc. Small local transportation could be powered by compressed air. Everyone would have small home compressor, which would convert free night electricity (wind, hydro, nuclear work night and day) to compressed air, which will be converted to electricity during day, or power tools and cars.

Not steam punk, but compressed air (and electricity) punk.

Nice clean word.

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As @Brian_Drozd writes, it is important to have no plastics. But oil is not the only way to get it. It is possible to create plastic for example from orange peels. It is not so cheap and useful now, but with redirecting the effort invested in oil, who knows what other sources we would find.

So I think it is impossible to give you an accurate answer - you change something, but people will find ways you couldn't imagine and it will end completely different from your idea, because you can't prevent things you don't know.

It reminds me of one short story I read a long time ago. I do not remember who wrote it, but the plot is simple:

It is somewhere in Arabia, I think around 1000 AD. A prince finds a beggar in his palace garden, sitting on edge of a fountain. Instead of driving him out, he feeds him. In exchange, the beggar reveals he is a genie and offers three wishes. The prince decides he want to see the future of the world, so the genie shows him how the world looks in few centuries. It is dominated by western civilization like today's, his own country is dry and poor and many parts of the vision touches a strange blue crystals. When the prince asks, the genie explains him that the crystals are mined in the western countries and they use it as a source of power. But in his country, there is just little of it.

The prince doesn't like what he sees. After some thinking, he chooses his second and third wish: remove all the blue crystals from the world, and put something else here, into this land, so his descendants can mine it. "Granted," said the genie and he disappeared. A moment later, the fountain gurgled and smelly, thick black fluid began to pour out instead of water.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Zopper and welcome to WB. As it stands your answer is very discursive, you've made some very good points about how a culture/world could adapt but the way you've written it comes across as chatty and as a discussion. On SE we try to stick to fixed questions and answers rather than discussion, if you have additional comments they should be left as comments. You can read more here worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 10 '14 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Liath I wanted to post it as a comment, but I don't have the required score for commenting. :-( $\endgroup$ – Zopper Nov 10 '14 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ Don't worry - I'm sure you will soon! $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 10 '14 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Liath I would disagree with your assessment of the rules in this particular exchange. While our goal is to give a strong base of plausibility to our answers, world building is by nature speculative, and speculation is most fruitful in discourse. I don't see chattiness as a problem here, because the story offered gives a constructive cultural background to the discussion. $\endgroup$ – Emmett R. Nov 11 '14 at 6:45
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This is an old thread, but one that still comes up when you search for steampunk. So, for anyone reading this in 2020 or beyond...

I think the only two realistic explanations for a 21st century in which steampunk level tech exists are:

  1. A huge global disaster that drastically reduces the earth's population (along with much of the research and/or scientifically literate people) in the 1800s/early 1900s. I'm talking something on the scale of a severe global plague that mutates into a deadly and highly contagious form that absolutely decimates the human population worldwide. Or maybe a supermassive volcanic eruption (i.e. Yellowstone) that wrecks the atmosphere, causes tsunamis, global crop failures (and likely wars over food supplies), and leads to a mini ice age. The society that's left behind after conditions improve would essentially have to start over again with whatever scientific understanding the average layman had.

  2. A very powerful, influential religion that infiltrates governments across the globe (or at least in places where scientific progress was being made in the 1800s). Something like the vatican mixed with a radical eco-warrior type movement that shuns certain technology and criminalises anything that goes beyond clear and obvious natural law (basically, a technology version of 'burn the witch'). People like Edison and Tesla are now hunted down and would-be investors are donating to the 'church' instead of backing research.

Or maybe 1. results in 2. happening (since the crisis pushes many into the arms of religion for reassurance)? Which allows this religion to gain even more ground. Either way, you'd end up with social 'norms' stalling in the 1800s (when the disaster happens) but technological understanding massively reduced and having to play catch up once 'the dust settles'. So you could realistically enter the 21st century without events such as the industrial revolution, WW1/WW2, rights for women, etc (big social change) ever happening. And technology is whatever the average Joe can manage to work out based on what little they remember from school (if they even went). So likely not even to the level of steampunk in many areas.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like this answer, Lana. Thank you!! I know it's an old question, but I'm pretty sure that your answer is the first answer to approach the question from a sociology/human history point of view instead of a technical scientific one. I appreciate both angles you took -- disaster and cult -- and I think that either one would be a very compelling background to a story...so thanks for that, too :D $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Dec 30 '19 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ We actually have a very good example of this on a small scale today with groups such as the Amish. For religious reasons, they pick and choose which technology they use and their society is something that would not look too out of place in the 1800s. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ Just storybuilding, but I imagine groups like the Amish would have the knowledge, skills and resources to survive (even thrive) in post-apocalyptic world. Corrupt people could easily comandeer such a group for their own benefit and expand it into a very different sort of religion at the expense of survivors wanting to find security. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ Or a more powerful religion (i.e. the church in the 1800s) could be corrupted and decide to lay blame for the disaster on humans 'going against god's ordained natural law'. So now you have a huge organisation with tons of money and influence driving the restriction of technology and shell-shocked human survivors going along with it out of desperation (and because the church has money to provide shelter, food, etc that they need). That's a very realistic scenario based on past human behaviour. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 10:50

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