Enamored of a world where steam power still rules and machines are big, complicated, and beautiful, steampunk enthusiasts imagine an alternate version of history, where the dress code demands petticoats and suit vests and airships are the most romantic forms of all transportation. As one would expect in a fantasy world, they come in great variety — made for battle, trade, or leisure, they fly over modern cityscapes and bucolic valleys alike.
Steampunk originated in novels in the 1960s and 70s before really taking off in later decades. But its influences date back much further, to the work of writers like Jules Verne, HG Wells and Mary Shelley. This image is from a French collecting card made at the turn of the 20th century. The airship at the top is a great example of where many thought technology was headed, and where steampunk fans wish it had gone.
There's no telling just what all of the decoration on this airship is there for. If it's there to look cool, mission accomplished. This is a rare steampunk image where a modern city with skyscrapers is involved. Usually the buildings in cities are lower, closer to the average height in 19th century Europe and America.
Airships rule from far the city as well. In this valley, illustrator Tom McGrath explains, a trade airship (note the small size and lack of cannons) has just stopped at the Mountain Goat Inn. It looks like a nice way to travel — you can stand on the deck at the ship's prow or in its crow's nest and look down on the world.
If it weren’t for the giant propeller at the back of this ship, I would guess it came from a scene in The Lord of the Rings. Based on how the passengers are dressed, this seems like a first-class ride. The digital painting is the work of freelance artist and designer Naomi Robinson based on the concept of the "sublime."
The coolest thing about this image is that it's not computer generated. At least, the airship isn't — it's a model made by Cara Packwood, then photographed and set against a sky background. The gears on the side and back of the hull and the metal wings make this the perfect steampunk airship. One commenter on Deviant Art pointed out that the balloon seems too small to carry a ship that size, but that's the advantage of a fantasy world — the laws of physics aren’t binding.
While steampunk artists are usually drawn to the elaborate — usually with lots of whirring mechanisms — there's room for simplicity in the genre. This illustration by David Wells is titled "Rustic Airship," and is accompanied by a to-the-point-description: "It's an airship. It's pretty old. It's dilapidating."
It seems that steampunk airship travelers can have fun too, based on this dragon-headed, party light-covered ride. Created by Anna Darwinian for her Steampunk Adventures Store on Second Life, you can pilot this ship if you've got an account, but only if you've got the Linden dollars to pay for it.
The maker of this "airship," which was on display at Maker Faire 2011 in the Bay Area, took things further than anyone whose work was featured on the first eight slides. He built the thing, and put it on wheels. The fact that it's real — not a model, not a drawing, not a computer illustration — more than makes up for its inability to fly.