The task of defining "steampunk" has become surprisingly difficult. Wildly differing definitions are currently in use, from the strictly traditional (late 19th century London-based alternate history science fiction) to the Lewis Carrollian (steampunk means whatever a person wants it to mean).
But certain tropes appear in most definitions of steampunk. Steam power and dirigibles are so common in steampunk as to be stereotypical and even archetypal steampunk iconography. The following is a list of a baker's dozen of the more interesting uses of these steampunk tropes in fiction of the pulp years.
1902: In the early pulp Argosy Park Winthrop wrote a six-month-long serial, "The Land of the Central Sun." Two American couples are on a pleasure cruise to South America when their yacht is blown off-course to Antarctica and trapped in the ice. The couples are rescued from certain death by an enormous zeppelin, the Meteor, which is owned by the suave and friendly Baron Montavo and operated by a crew of telepathic and telekinetic big-headed dwarf geniuses. Montavo takes the Americans to the center of Antarctica, where there is a tunnel leading into the Hollow Earth. Inside the Hollow Earth is the civilization of the telepathic dwarfs who crew the Meteor and a variety of strange animals, including winged cows and flying crocodiles. The dwarfs have an advanced civilization, with high technology (including a variety of zeppelins), and Montavo advises their king, but their oppressed under-class leads a rebellion, and the Americans barely escape.
1904: Jules Verne's second Robur novel, Maître du Monde (Master of the World), is published. Robur is arrogant but reachable in his first appearance, Robur le Conquerant (1886), but in his second appearance has become mad and vainglorious with power, and begins terrorizing the world from his new airship, The Terror. Despite this, Robur and Captain Nemo remain the archetypal Victorian steampunks. Not surprisingly, both were imitated. In 1909, German science fiction writer Robert Kraft wrote the pulp Der Herr def Lüfte #1-9, about a Robur-like German airman who tries to use the advanced science of his zeppelin to enforce world peace. (Ultimately he fails). In 1910 French writer Georges Clavigny wrote the pulp L'Aéronef-Pirate #1-30. The titular air pirate is a Robur-like pirate who wages war on the civilized countries of the world from a number of exotic, foreign (that is, non-French) locations. And in 1913, in the St. Petersburg (Russia) newspaper Kopeika, the serial adventures of the noble bandit Anton Krecht were enlivened by an episode in which Krechet helps a hermit Siberian philosopher/scientist develop a maneuverable steam-powered airship which the hermit uses to become a Robur-like figure.
1904: The second Captain Nemo novel, L'Île Mystérieuse, was published in 1874. In the years following its publication a number of fictional imitations of Nemo appeared, but nearly all of them were reimaginings of the character, divorcing him from his punk, anti-imperialist roots and recreating him as a pro-empire patriot for the country of his origin. Typical of these was English story paper writer Edgar J. Murray's Ferrers Lord, who appeared in dozens of stories and novels from 1895 to 1935. Lord uses three Nautilus-like flying submarines to defeat Russian enemies of Great Britain and to solve crime. Ferrers Lord was popular enough to inspire numerous imitations in his turn, including the anonymously-created Captain Strange who appeared in a number of stories in the story paper Boys' Herald in 1903 and 1904. Strange is an inventor-adventurer, and when France declares war on Great Britain, Strange takes his yacht, on which he has placed a giant steam-powered claw, out to sea. When the French mini-submarines attempt to maneuver their way through the British minefields, Strange uses the claw to pluck the mini-subs from the water and drag or tow them into port. However, after a successful series of attacks by the French on Gibraltar, the French inventor and aviator M. Santon-Dumas (who is based on the Brazilian-French aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932)) announces that he will be placing his "aerial flying machine" at the service of the French government. Strange and Santon-Dumas clash, and after Santon-Dumas' zeppelin-like airship flies too low and is destroyed by Strange's claw, England wins the war.
1904: The pseudonymous Chinese writer "Huangjiang Diaosou" wrote a year long serial, "Yueqiu Zhimindi Xiaoshuo" (Lunar Colony), in the mainstream magazine Xiuxiang Xiaoshuo. "Lunar Colony" was not the first piece of Chinese science fiction, but it has become the best known of the early Chinese sf. In "Lunar Colony" the Hunanese scholar Long Menghua is forced to flee Hunan after he murders a government official who is harassing his in-laws. Long and his wife flee the country, but along the way their ship is struck by a British liner. Long's wife disappears in the shipwreck, but Long is rescued by Ōtarō Tama, a Japanese dirigible inventor, and the two team up to search for Long's wife. In Ōtarō's dirigible, which is powered by electricity and has a variety of advancd technology, Long and Ōtarō begin searching for Long's wife. Their search takes them across Southeast Asia, and along the way they encounter a variety of different groups, including a band of male and female martial artists who have vowed to bring an end to the Qing dynasty by assassinating the leaders of the Chinese government. After rescuing Long's wife from bandits, Long, his wife, Ōtarō, the martial artists, and the others Long has gathered around himself decide that all the nations of the world are too corrupt, so the group sets off to the moon in Ōtarō's dirigible and establish a utopia there.
1906: Air flight was a common theme in the boys' and girls' adventure series of the early 20th century. In some series, like the "Tom Swift" books, it was an occasional feature, and in some, like Howard Garis' "Rocket Riders" series, it was a constant. But it was never handled better than in Howard Garis' nine-book "Great Marvel" series, which ran from 1906 to 1935. In the series the brilliant, reclusive inventor Amos Henderson creates a series of vehicles for exploration: a boat-dirigible, a submarine, a submarine-dirigible, a rocket ship, and a dirigible-rocket. In these vehicles Henderson, his informally adopted sons Mark Sampson and Jack Darrow, and a few other friends fight giant sea monsters, enter the Hollow Earth, fight carnivorous plants, visit Mars (twice), visit the alien "Red Dwarfs," help a group of crash-landed Venusians, and are captured by the Giant Purple People on Saturn.
1908: Louis Boussenard, known in his lifetime as the "French H. Rider Haggard," wrote a serial "Les Gratteurs de Ciel" (The Sky Scrapers) in the magazine Journal des Voyages – Aventures de Terre et de Mer. "The Sky Scrapers" is about what happens when the teenaged journalist Dicky, known as the "king of the reporters," discovers that foreign (non-French) powers are building a fleets of war-zeppelins. Dicky tangles with foreign spies and the French air fleet of super-fast atomic powered war-zeppelins fights the enemy fleets in the skies over Paris. Dicky aids the effort with "nuclear grenades."
1909: Boys' adventure writer Harry L. Sayler wrote the eight-book Airship Boys series, which ran from 1909 to 1915. Never in the first rank of boys' adventure series, the Airship Boys series was nonetheless popular, and every book involves a high-tech (for the era) aircraft. The Airship Boys are Ned Napier and Alan Hope, a pair of boy geniuses from Chicago. Their particular field of research is aviation, and after creating a cutting-edge dirigible, they go in search of Aztec treasure. (They find it, along with the Lost Race neo-Aztec pyramid builders who are guarding it). In later adventures the dirigibles become even more advanced, with the Airship Boys' final airship being an advanced airplane capable of reaching speeds of 800 mph. The Airship Boys find a hidden valley of "white Eskimos" and fight German spies, among other exploits.
1926. Under the pseudonym of "Jean d'Agraives," French writer (and later Nazi collaborator) Frédéric Causse wrote the pulp L'Aviateur de Bonaparte (Bonaparte's Airman) #1-22. Set in the late 18th century, Bonaparte's Airman is about the brilliant Breton inventor, the Chevalier de Trélern, who is inspired Napoleon's cause, and so creates for Napoleon a flying machine, the Vélivole, which initially is a glider but later becomes a propellor-driven and then steam-powered dirigible. With the help of Vélivole Napoleon conquers most of Europe. De Trélern's activities attract the hostile attention of Austria, specifically the "Sept de Prique," Austria's top spy. The Sept's pursuit of de Trélern is eventually foiled by the French policeman Jourdain, who reveals that the Sept's superior is actually the Vicomte D'Erlande, a foul, wicked genius who also inspired the Comte d'Antraigues to betray the Treaty of Tilsit to the British cabinet.
1928: Under the pseudonym of "Don Crosby," pulp writer J. Allan Dunn wrote a series of six stories in the pulp Air Trails about the "young and intrepid inventor and pilot" Ace Ainsworth. In his laboratory on the outskirts of Cosmopolis, Ainsworth creates a variety of technologically-advanced vehicles and weapons. His two main inventions are both air vehicles named Falcon, one a helicopter and one a zeppelin. They are powered by "mysterious magnetic currents that flow between the poles and are cause by the rotation of the earth," and are armed with "rapid-fire guns of light but efficient caliber." Ainsworth also carries an "electro-pistol" and while flying wears a pair of goggles whose prisms allow him to see invisible airships. Ainsworth uses the Falcons to fight air pirates, explore the "city of the clouds," fight high-tech cattle rustlers, and to loot Aztec gold in a remote city inhabited by Lost Race Aztecs.
1931: Pulp writer David H. Keller is best known for his series characters Cecil of Cornwall (a swords-and-sorcery character in Dark Ages Britain) and Taine (a detective with the "San Francisco Secret Service"). One of Taine's enemies is the evil surgeon and Yellow Peril Wing Loo. In "The Steam Shovel" (Amazing Stories, Sept. 1931) Wing, having fled to Burma, hires out to a local rajah. The rajah is having difficulties getting his slaves to work for him, and is in fact facing a rebellion, so Wing decides to solve this problem for the rajah by transplanting an elephant's brain into a steam shovel. If it works, huge numbers of artificial slaves could be created. Unfortunately, the operation backfires. The steam shovel kills the rajah and flees into the forest.
1931: Francis Van Wyck Mason is better known as a detective and thriller writer; his most famous character was the proto-James Bond Colonel Hugh North, who appeared in 26 novels from 1930 to 1968. Less well known is Mason's stories for the science fiction pulps. In 1931 he wrote a two-parter for Astounding Stories, "Phalanxes of Atlans." In the story two America explorers crash-land in the Arctic. One disappears, and the other, while searching for him, comes upon a hidden land kept warm by volcanic activity. The land has two races: the blond and red-headed descendants of the Atlanteans, and the Jarmuthians, who are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel and who are portrayed in anti-Semitic terms. Both races, who are hostile toward each other, use the volcanic heat of the land to create steam, which powers their technology, including steam tube-cars (which reach 300 miles per hour), steam airships, and guns which shoot compressed steam. Both races also have a variety of dinosaurs, from Tyrannosaurus Rex to pterodactyls, which are used as everything from beasts of burden to war animals. Eventually the Atlanteans and the Jarmuthians fight and the two American explorers, and the Atlantean princess who loves one, escape on the princess' pet pterodactyl.
1933. In Spain, the writer José Canellas Casals and the artist Marc Farell created the pulp Mack Wan. El Invencible #1-20. Casals and Farell were responsible for a large number of the best comics of Spain's pulp Golden Age, but Mack Wan stands out. Mack Wan is a costumed vigilante modeled on Alexandre Dumas' Edmond Dantès. When Wan was a child his parents were killed and he was shut up in an insane asylum as a dangerous lunatic. As an adult he escaped from the asylum and then designed a costume to wear as he hunted down his parents' killers. Wan's sidekick is Jim, a boy whose face was mutilated by a gang of smugglers who sell deformed children to circuses (a naked lift of Victor Hugo's L'Homme Qui Rit). Wan and Jim have the full range of pulp adventures, from fighting Lost Race conquistadors to busting up Arab-run white slavery sects whose headquarters are in hidden pyramids. A number of Wan's enemies, including a Fu Manchu-like Yellow Peril, use zeppelins as vehicles, weapons, and headquarters, and Wan repeatedly storms these zeppelins, flies into them, fights inside them, and wrestles his arch-enemies on top of them.
1943: The pseudonymous Danish writer "Jack MaCarter" wrote the pulp Robert Watt, Ku-Klux-Klan Klubben #1-11. Robert Watt was part of the Danish pulp industry, which continued to publish a number of pulps during World War Two despite the German occupation. In Robert Watt the titular character is an American policeman in an unnamed Southern state. Watt discovers that the Ku Klux Klan is not just confined to the American South, but is in fact a global terrorist conspiracy with ties to Chinese Tongs (who are run by Yellow Peril mandarins), among other groups. (All of Watt's enemies were, not coincidentally, enemies of Germany; the Germans allowed the Danes to continue publishing their pulps but demanded that the content aid Germany's propaganda efforts). In Robert Watt, Ku-Klux-Klan Klubben #6, "Det Stjålne Luftskib" (The Stolen Airship), the Klan steals a German dirigible and uses it to terrorize the peace-loving German immigrants of America's mid-west, forcing Watt into gunfights on top of the zeppelin and inside its cockpit.
Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.