Delightfully fictional

19th century science

Steampunk research: 19th Century Science

The particular distinctiveness of steampunk comes from the way it creates unique worlds revolving around technology. I have a particular attachment to classic (if I can call it like that) Neo-Victorian steampunk, based on the 19th century science and inventions. It has an exquisite feel, and immersing in that wonderful world of boilers, contraptions, airships, and corsets is such an enjoyable escape from the 21st century’s reality.

A fundamental prerequisite for a writer or an artist to create this kind of universe is to understand the cogs and wheels that make it work. For, although fictional, it must be realistic, and all parts put together need to make sense.

I am a humanities person. All my life I’ve been reading books and learning languages, careful to stay out of mathematics’ path. With this background, my fascination for steampunk might come as odd, but the way steampunk puts technology to use has a unique aesthetics that is as poetic as a literary piece.

While doing the research for Laevium, I discovered that the world of the 19th century science in particular (and of science in general) was way more enchanting than I had initially believed. I found myself reading articles and books which I had never dreamt of opening before, on topics varying from steam engines and how Industrial Revolution began, to gas separation methods. Some of them were highly technical, and I had to look even further in order to understand what I was reading.

 In a previous blog article, I listed some of the resources I used to do my research on Victorian London. In this one, I’m sharing a few of my favorite resources for a more technical research for steampunk worldbuilding.

It’s only natural that I start with airships, as they are a pivotal element in the steampunk world. One of the best resources out there, the site of all sites when it comes to airships, is AIRSHIPS.NET. Their articles are extremely well documented, include a lot of details, and, what is even more awesome, a lot of pictures. It’s a site to spend hours on. And an excellent resource to understand airships, their types, how they are made and how they work.

Science Direct is another resource I recommend for a more in-depth approach of airships and their working principle. The materials are highly technical and, if you are not their target audience, they are difficult to understand. However, if you are looking for a specific technical detail, chances are you might find it here. I read several hours about hydrogen use in airships and separation of helium from methane just for a few paragraphs in my novel. But those few paragraphs had to be extremely accurate, and I had to clearly understand what I was writing.

And now comes my favorite part: 19th century science books. Below I’ve shared some of the titles I found the most interesting and useful. They cover steam engines, Industrial Revolution, and the inventions of that time. For a steampunk writer or artist, these books can be a treasure trove, and a huge inspiration source. It’s enough to read the table of contents of Edward W. Byrn’s The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century, and you’ll want to start writing a steampunk novel right away.

Another good thing about these books is that they offer the point of view of someone who actually lived in that period. So, we can also understand how they were perceived and received back then. For research, that’s gold. These are my favorites (since now they are public domain, they are available for free on Project Gutenberg):

Edward W. Byrn’s The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century

Frederick C. Bakewell’s Great Facts

George Grant’s A Historical Account of Useful Inventions and Scientific Discoveries

Dionysius Lardner’s The Steam Engine Explained and Illustrated (Seventh Edition)

N. HawkinsMaxims and Instructions for the Boiler Room

I’m finishing up with my favorite museum in the world: The Science Museum in London. Each time I visit it, I spend the entire day there, and I always find something new and interesting. Given the challenging times we are living, a real visit seems really far away right now. But the awesome thing is that anyone can explore online their collection of over 325k objects (along with details), from all museums that are part of the Science Museum Group.

As always, I’m looking forward to even more recommendations to add to my research list.

I'm an indie author, translation industry professional, and former magazine editor, with a passion for steampunk, cyberpunk, and historical fiction. My debut novel Laevium, a steampunk story set in Neo-Victorian London, is available from most major online bookstores.

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