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Perhaps one of the most popular flavors of worldbuilding is steampunk, which is basically today's technology under Victorian attitude, architecture and materials. The clear inspiration for steampunk's overall style is the Industrial Revolution's heavy emphasis on metals and factories and coal and those sorts of things.

The fact that real Victorian society was nowhere near as extravagant--let alone BIG--as the steampunk culture, I had to ask:

When would be the best point of departure in our timeline for steampunk to be a reality? What materials and resources would be needed to create this possibility?

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    $\begingroup$ By "steampunk" do you just mean extensive use of steam power, or do you also want to eliminate machines which use technologies that didn't exist until well into the 20th century like microchips and magnetic tapes and lasers (and perhaps 20th century materials like plastics), perhaps even eliminating all electrical technology much more advanced than in the Edison/Tesla days, and having the only "computers" being ones based on gears like the difference engine and analytical engine? $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Mar 28 '16 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't realize steampunk have evolved into "today's technology under Victorian attitude". It was never that. Steampunk fandom IS that for practical purposes - people want to wear the costumes but don't want to give up their iPhones. But I'm not aware of any steampunk literature that's basically today's technology. Steampunk have traditionally been Victorian technology and fashion with today's attitude. The majority of steampunk revolves around "what if more people understood computing during Victorian times"? $\endgroup$ – slebetman Mar 30 '16 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to note that computing is not a modern technology. It is emphatically a Victorian technology which failed to market (not all of it, accumulators like the difference engine continued to be developed and sold commercially. One of the pinnacle of Victorian-style computers was the bomber targeting computer used by bombers in WW2 which was 100% mechanical gears - not electronic) $\endgroup$ – slebetman Mar 30 '16 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ Have to agree with @slebetman, Steampunk - in essentially all forms I encountered so far - never went near "today's technology". $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Mar 30 '16 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ Related (duplicate?): worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/3757/2072 $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Mar 30 '16 at 11:35
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Looking at this the other way, you need to understand why steam technology was eventually outmoded by internal combustion engines and electric engines between @ the 1880's and the 1920's (like most things, supplementing older technologies takes time).

The first issue with steam is that the power to weight ratio is generally lower than with competing systems. Since steam is an external combustion system, you need the extra mass of boilers, steam pipes, condensers (if fitted) and so on to extract the chemical energy of the fuel into mechanical energy. Internal combustion engines (Otto, Diesel and Brayton cycle) all dispense with the intermediate step, so engine machinery is much lighter and more compact.

This scaling effect works downwards rather than upwards. Large steam powered systems continued to dominate in locomotive engines and ships into the 1920's and even into the Second World War (many ships were powered by "triple expansion engines", for example), and thermal generators are still dominated by steam generation whether coal, oil or even nuclear powered. On a very large scale, steam is still competitive.

The second issue with steampunk is flexibility. Since steam is generally competitive when you are looking at large systems, then you are tied to the location of the steam engine, rather than being able to move around as needed. Factories in the steam age use a single large steam engine which drove a series of drive shafts along the ceiling. Pulleys attached to the drive shafts drove belts or chains down to the machines below. You could imagine a computer server room filled with mechanical "Babbage Engines" all running off a locomotive sized engine in the back, but this technology, like others, isn't going to scale into PC's, laptops or tablets (the idea of a person carrying a scoop of coal for their laptop, adjusting the chimney for the correct draft and waiting for the boiler to come up to pressure for a laptop Babbage machine should give you some idea of where this is going.

To actually make a steampunk society, you would need to jump-start steam technology by several decades. Very simple steam and atmospheric engines were invented as far back as the 1rst century AD, but Roman society generally thought of these devices as toys. What we understand as steam engines were invented in the early 1700's, so your point of departure will be to commercialize steam technology and improve it before James Watt's condensing engines were introduced in 1781. Perhaps James can be born several decades earlier, or Newcomen's engine introduced in the 1690's and a budding genius develops the condensing engine (which was far more fuel efficient) in the early 1700's.

The point is to give Steam engines such an entrenched advantage in terms of sunk costs, developed infrastructure and the huge mass of technicians and other trained workers needed to keep steam power viable that competing technologies will find it harder (although not impossible) to break into the market. The widespread availability of stem power and the costs of conversion would allow for a much longer time-frame for steam to be viable, and for steam engineers to develop cost effective responses to internal combustion and electric power (steam cars and even steam airplanes were developed, so it is possible to have a Steampunk age lasting perhaps from the 1700's to the 1950's in your timeline).

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  • $\begingroup$ Steam wagons actually lasted into the 1950s despite ever more restrictive regulation, it was the cheap war surplus trucks that finally did for them. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Mar 26 '16 at 22:16
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It's not about what you need to make a steampunk world but what should be missing.

Let's look at your world and see what isn't steam powered.

  • cars
  • trucks
  • some trains

Wait what? Surely more than that, my phone and computer are electric.

Nope, ultimately they're steam powered. It's just that steam power is more effective on a large scale then transmitted via electricity.

So where did it all go wrong?

Henry Ford is where it went wrong. Until the high production output of his factory any given car was as likely to be steam powered as petrol. Steam trucks lasted even longer.

To make your steampunk world you need to remove Henry Ford and central electricity distribution and it's all up in the air from there.

In spite of increasing regulation relating to the noise, steam and smoke from steam wagons, they lasted until cheap war surplus trucks displaced them in the 1950s. They have power advantages for short haul high load work, e.g. steam engines produce full torque from a standing start. Allowing this technology to mature in a way that was not effectively permitted could well mean that a "steampunk" world of a sort would exist.

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To make a steampunk era more likely, you need to remove easy access to petrol and internal combustion engines.

Without a liquid fuel with high chemical energy that is convenient to store and pump, the internal combustion engine would not have made it big.

I think i remember reading somewhere (although i cannot find it at the moment) that students tried to rebuild the first Daimler engine, and failed. The story claimed that this engine could only work because of some lack of precision: rebuilt with modern technology, materials and precision it simply would not work.
So, assuming that liquid fuel was much more expensive / harder to obtain in large quantities, and maybe Gottlieb Daimler working with higher precision, and thus failing to get his engine to work, a steam/electric hybrid punk era might have been feasible.

While it is of course true that small steam engines don't make much sense, other than maybe for "portable" generators, i think you could have an interesting steam / electricity mix.

Now all you need is a somewhat more reasonable Austrian monarch, to avoid the first world war, and you could have had a nice, prospering and reasonably rich electric steampunk society. Avoiding the first world war would have helped expanding the turn-of-the-century era that was so much in love with intricate, complicated and richly ornamented designs, that were so brutally replaced by ugly, but easy-to-produce, cheap and reliable means of destruction.

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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 world in which steampunk level tech might exist have nothing to do with inventions themselves:

  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.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how either of those would produce a Steampunk setting, to be honest. Usually great calamity facilitates rapid technological development, as wars do. And a technology-shy religion would need to be very specifically against internal combustion engines but in favour of steam engines, which is a distinction hard to draw from any religious scripture. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Dec 30 '19 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ I think you would still have very restricted technology (likely in the hands of the religious order), but it would progress incredibly slowly and not reach the levels seen in the industrial revolution. The average person wouldn't have access to it though. So people like Edison wouldn't have the opportunity to experiment and invent. Essentially, scientific progress would stall. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ And calamity can drive progress if you have the people alive to invent and those people have the access to the resources neccessary. A group of random Joe's in a makeshift underground shelter will likely spend most of their time hunting for food rather than tinkering with electrodes. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ On top of that, volcanic eruptions don't create "mini ice ages". And what kind of mutagen existed at the turn of the 20th century? $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 30 '19 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ 'Ice age' is probably the incorrect term.. But a huge amount of debris in the air would prevent as much sunlight reaching the surface and global temperatures would drop. The knock on effects of this (crop failures, etc) would create additional upheaval. I imagine you'd have large migrations of people trying to get to safety (and food) in bad conditions and this would make it easier for any disease to spread. Take the 1918 spanish flu epidemic (as one example) which was already both deadly and contagious. Now have those infected groups migrating on a massive scale to other areas. $\endgroup$ – Lana Dec 30 '19 at 10:28

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