When I found steam punk. I was very curious as to what actually term Steampunk meant. And so started doing a lot of research into anything I could find. Let's start with the basics. If you were to take the word Steampunk and break it into its parts the word steam, in this context seems to imply steam powered and would refer to the industrial revolution where steam power took over the previous water power and muscle power. Punk, typically refers to a young person, especially a member of the rebellious counterculture group. So, putting the two together would imply a young person, using steam to rebel against a higher power. That in itself is a fair representation of what steam punk, at its base, is.
The term Steampunk did not emerge until the 1980s, where the author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (author of The Anubis Gates), James Blaylock (Homunculus), and himself (Morlock Night and Infernal Devices) which all had a Victorian setting set in the 19th century similar to that of speculative fiction authors such as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and even Mary Shelley. In 1987 Jeter wrote a letter to the science-fiction magazine Locus, which follows:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
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...
While this was the establishment of the term steampunk, it was by no means the beginning of the genre in itself. To roll back and try and find the beginnings. You would have to go to late 19th century dime novels where the stories typically involved a scientist or a lone inventor creating whimsical wondrous steam creations. Which in turn, be used to combat the Powers that be, whether that be the wild West or some unnamed enemy. Such wondrous creations such as steam men were quite often created to be more than mere man, can be found as early as 1868 in "The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies"by Edward S. Ellis Later emulated by Harry Enton in "Frank Reade, and His Steam Man of the Plains "and then later continued by Luis Senarens "Frank Reade Jr. And His Steam Wonder" that continued for 178 stories. Luis's stories inspired Fred Hazel's "The Electric Horse",Luis Senarens' "Jack Wright", Philip Reade's "Tom Edison Junior", and Robert Toombs' "Electric Bob". Which some would argue should be included in the genre of science fiction. After these and some following this type of writing slowly shifted its gears more towards hidden cities of lost races, fictional lands and other planets.
While there are many other works I could mention I shall fast forward to more current works such as Keith Laumer's imperium series which started with the "Worlds of the Imperium"or Ronald W. Clark's "Queen Victoria's Bomb which has been cited as early influence upon the genre. Similar to Michael Moorcock's "Warlord of the Air" to skip forward a bit more. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel "The Difference Engine" is often credited with being the first to bring widespread awareness to the genre.
Enough with quoting titles and author names. I will save the full list of works considered to be Steampunk for another time, let us get back to the point. Generally established Steampunk tends to be set in a Victorian or Elizabethan setting with emphasis on the industrial revolution, where steam became a major advancement in technology. Often leaning towards fictional creations of inventors or scientists. This is not to say that this is all there is to steam punk. However, this is the basic beginnings. Granted, the generalization is rather broad. But consider the same statement applied to science fiction, since Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction. So, rather than the idea of steam powered trains, consider it more in the vein of a steam powered vehicle of some persuasion. Perhaps something that crawls or walks, extend your imagination to something out of the ordinary and use steam to power it, or perhaps gears, even consider clockwork contraptions. Now take those ideas and apply the Victorian concept of craftsmanship, showing off the internal workings of your amazing machine, and in essence you have steampunk.
In more recent years the popularity of Steampunk has expanded its doors to lend itself to a Steampunk culture, which tends to include, but is not limited to, goths, punks, cyber-goths, rivet heads (industrial music fans), gamers, and geek's. Fans of Steampunk have adopted a Steampunk aesthetic through fashion, home decor, music, and even film often by modding common everyday items. This may be described as neo-Victorianism which is an amalgamation of Victorian aesthetic principles. With modern sensibilities and technologies.
Steampunk fashion has no set guidelines, but tends to take modern styles adapted to a Victorian style. Often including gowns, corsets, petticoats, bustles, suits with vests, coats and spats, or even military inspired clothing. Some Steampunk outfits tend to be accented with a mixture of accessories such as timepieces, parasols, goggles, ray guns, and various fanciful gadgets. Also some newer technologies such as cell phones or MP3 players can be found after they have been modified to look as though they were Victorian made.
So in essence, picture a world where steam is the major factor in most technologies. Where brass gears, copper pipes, warm woods, and clockwork contraptions replace today's silicone and circuits. Where steam powers our engines. Where zeppelins and airships replace our planes. Where safety goggles are actually brass goggles. I could likely continue on. I think you might get the point by now.
So I hope that perhaps this may have answered some questions about what Steampunk actually is. If you still have questions or need more than happy to attempt to answer them for you. So please feel free to comment.