Shocking! Electricity in a Steampunk Setting

Steampunk is not just about steam-powered gadgets. Electricity is a natural phenomenon, so mankind has always had some interest in what it is and what it does. The words electricity and electric have been around since the 1600s, Michael Faraday invented the electric engine in 1821, and so the presence of electricity isn’t outrageous in a Steampunk narrative. In fact, Mary Shelley’s masterwork, Frankenstein, uses electricity as one of its scientific methods for reviving dead tissue. 

Alice Vanderbilt's Costume as 'Electric Light', March 26, 1883

Alice Vanderbilt’s Costume as ‘Electric Light’, March 26, 1883

Electricity was as much a part of the Victorian era as steam. As you can see from the photograph of Alice Vanderbilt, it was considered quite fashionable and the coming thing. The electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, the electric car, all were invented in the Victorian era. However, it was a technology that needed un underlying infrastructure to be utilised by business and in the domestic area. While steam and gas suppling power and light, there was no rush to benefit from electricity.

An illustration of what Victorian thought life in the Twentieth Century might look like ... the Electric Life.

An illustration of what Victorian thought life in the Twentieth Century might look like … the Electric Life.

Because electricity was invisible and not well understood, quacks took advantage of the gullible to flood the market with electrical devices for medical purposes; another sort of snake oil. This was partly encouraged by the use of electricity in actual medical treatments, like electric shocks used to treat inmates of psychiatric institutions. You could purchase electric brushes, belts, toothbrushes (not like the modern electric toothbrush), and most of these articles proved to be less ‘electrical’ than a glass rod rubbed with a silk cloth. Any unseen force was usually appropriated by the quacks and snake oil salesmen.

Doctor Scott's Electric Hairbrush

Doctor Scott’s Electric Hairbrush

Faradization illustration from the 1871 Edition of the Beard and Rockwell publication on the Medical  and Surgical Uses of Electricity. From the History of Neurostimulation website

Faradization illustration from the 1871 Edition of the Beard and Rockwell publication on the Medical and Surgical Uses of Electricity. From the History of Neurostimulation website

By the end of the Victorian era, electricity was well and truly on its way to becoming art of the daily running of a household. So if you want to write about electrical gadgets in your Steampunk narrative, you certainly can do so.

For more Steampunk goodness, I have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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2 Comments

Filed under Analogy, Gadgets, History, Research, Science, Setting, Steampunk

2 responses to “Shocking! Electricity in a Steampunk Setting

  1. “So if you want to write about electrical gadgets in your Steampunk narrative, you certainly can do so.” Yes, I do 😀

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