Harper Goff's Nautilus as the Genesis of Steampunk

I know I said I wouldn't be posting, but this section of the dissertation felt like a self-encapsulated post, so I'm sharing it with y'all. Sorry I didn't have time to include a works cited at the bottom. I'll try to get to that when the big work is done. 

Steampunk’s distant antecedents and inspiration obviously lie in the fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian period. Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter all admit to drawing from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor; Blaylock articulated further particular inspirations from other Victorian writers:
Homunculus was simply a variety of historical novel that I had written largely because I was crazy for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and because I had grown up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and my idea of science fiction had always had to do with backyard scientists and fabulous submarines and spacecraft that housed onboard greenhouses. (468)
While H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are often cited as the most likely nineteenth century precursors to steampunk, they are only the two most obvious candidates. H.G. Wells’s influence is glaringly obvious in steampunk, starting with Jeter’s recursive-fantasy Morlock Night and Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, since both are ostensible sequels to Wells’ The Time Machine.

Steampunk draws inspiration from numerous nineteenth century writers. Nick Gevers adds a number of Victorian and Edwardian authors to this growing list: Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Jack London, M.P.Shiel, Arthur Machen, and the many penny dreadful and dime novels “that echoed these canonical works” (9).
As a marriage of urban fantasy and the alternate-world tradition can arguably be traced back to the influence of Charles Dickens, whose vision of a labyrinthine, subaqueous London as moronic inferno underlies many later texts. Dickens’s London, somewhat sanitized, also underlies the Babylon-on-the-Thames version of the great city created by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and G.K. Chesterton in their fantasies—tales whose uneasy theodicy underpins much contemporary gaslight romance. The two categories, steampunk and gaslight romance, point to two ways of rendering closely linked original material. (Clute “Steampunk” 895)
While written texts cannot be ignored as steampunk’s literary ancestors, the proliferation of cinematic adaptations of Victorian Scientific Romances following the success of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 seem a more likely reason for steampunk’s popularity. A nostalgic longing akin to the one Jameson speaks of regarding Star Wars is ostensibly in play for those whose Saturday matinee experience involved the twenty years between 1951 and 1971, when “an average of at least one new Verne film was released annually” (Taves 227), along with numerous adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In “A History of Misapplied Technology: The History and Development of the Steampunk Genre,” Cory Gross charts the proliferation of these “Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies,” noting how “Disneyland itself would be infused with Disney’s nostalgia for the turn of the 20th century”:
. . . upon entering the park, the visitor must travel up a recreated Victorian American main street, or load on to one of the narrow-gauge steam trains. Perhaps, in addition to recognizing the capacity of Science Fiction to be serious entertainment, [Disney] also recognized that the Victorian Era was changing from the backwards past of our fathers to the gilded fairyland of our ancestors. (55-57)  

In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson calls these types of movies nostalgia films, and his description of them is strikingly similar to the way I envision steampunk’s evocation of the nineteenth century:
. . . the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion. (19)
Taking Greg Bear’s suggestion concerning Disney’s Nautilus, it is likely that film adaptations of Verne’s works had as significant an impact on steampunk as the original works they derive from. In “Hollywood’s Jules Verne” from The Jules Verne Encyclopedia, Brian Taves argues that “Today, any Verne enthusiast’s reading of the original works is bound to be intertwined with viewing the films. The Vernian “text” is no longer simply his novels, but the accumulation of impressions gained through many versions in the performing arts” (205). Richard Fleischer, director of the 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea believed the Disney film to be the version of Verne’s story “known today by most young people” (Frazier and Hathorne 39). Anecdotally, I find that most people who say they are a fan of Verne are referring to the film adapations, not the books. Taking this idea a step further, it seems likely that the seminal steampunk writers of the ‘70s and ‘80s were inspired as much by these cinematic adaptations as they were by Verne’s original texts. Taves chronicles the prolific period of production of Vernian cinema prior to the emergence of steampunk texts in the 1970s:
“For twenty years, from 1951-1971, an average of at least one new Verne film was released annually. The peak year was 1961, when four Hollywood Verne movies were released, as well as several imports, along with television broadcasts” (227).

Taves’ study is limited solely to filmic adaptations of Verne’s works, but the popularity of Verne adaptations gave rise to other celluloid period SF films, such as George Pal’s version of Wells’ The Time Machine (1960) and First Men in the Moon (1964), and Kevin O’Connor’s Edgar Rice Burrough’s adaptations: The Land that Time Forgot (1975), At the Earth’s Core (1976), and The People That Time Forgot (1977). In addition to adaptation, many original films capitalizing on the popularity of the fantastic Victorian or Edwardian setting were made: The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), The Lost Continent (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969), and Warlords of Atlantis (1978).

The impact of these films are often overlooked in brief histories of steampunk: Jeff and Ann Vandermeer leap from the “proto-steampunk” of the Victorian and Edwardian age to the 1970s and the emergence of “a true Godfather of modern steampunk,” Michael Moorcock (2010: 9). Gevers likewise jumps from “the period literature that steampunk references” to Moorcock (9). Cory Gross is one of the few writers who pays it adequate attention in his article “A History of Misapplied Technology: A History and Development of the Steampunk Genre.”

 Yet it warrants attention in understanding the influences that shaped steampunk, especially if we take seriously Greg Bear’s contention that steampunk starts with Harper Goff’s Nautilus, along with public perception of Verne’s stories being influenced more by the cinematic versions than the original tales. The design aesthetic informing the drastic differences between Verne’s Nautilus and Goff’s version are critically evaluated by James Maertens in his article contrasting the novel and the film.
[Goff’s] decision to make a baroque Nautilus that looked like the Loch Ness monster was probably a wise choice from the standpoint of the film medium because it did produce a visually fascinating design that enhanced the sense of mystery and wonder surrounding the vessel. But it is more interesting as an interpretation of the Victorian Age than as a representation of Verne’s submarine design. The Victorian Age is mythologized as a period in which wealth and technical power were combined. Acquisition, industry, and individualism all merge in the image of the high-speed machine appointed in velvet and brass. Glimpsed only fleetingly at various points during the film, Goff’s Nautilus exteriors tantalize the eye of the viewer and give the same impression of elegant power as the rich interiors with their specimen cases, draperies, and polished brass instruments. This interior opulence is certainly not a departure from the comfortable submarine-yacht designed by Verne, but the extension of the baroque to the exterior of the ship and its machinery is. (Maertens 212-213 emphasis added)

Goff told Disney that he imagined Captain Nemo putting the cinematic Nautilus together “hastily and roughly” using the “only material available . . . the rough iron . . . salvaged from wrecks” (Frazier and Hathorne 35, 40). As such, the Nautilus design is a visual encapsulation of the steampunk aesthetic – the evocation of the past mediated by a backward gaze. In contrast to Goff’s fantastic metal beast meant to signify the industrial style of a previous century, Verne’s Nautilus is hydrodynamic, a plausibly utilitarian design. Goff’s Nautilus evokes a sense of the past in a way a sleek, cigar-shaped cylinder couldn’t have to 1954 audiences recently enamored by the advent of the real world namesake of Nemo’s ship, the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus. Unlike the sleek design of the real-world Nautilus, the hull of Goff’s design is rust-colored, further supporting his concept of the cinematic Nautilus being a hodge-podge slap-together of available, less-than-superior materials. To a 1954 audience, its shape was reminiscent of nineteenth century ironclads, a mosaic of metal plates held together by thousands of rivets.

The influence of Goff’s Nautilus is evidenced directly in four particular steampunk works: Thomas F. Moteleone’s The Secret Sea (1979), Joe Lansdale’s Zeppelins West (2001), Kevin J. Anderson’s Captain Nemo: The Fanastic Adventures of a Dark Genius (2002), and Mark Mellon’s Napoleon Concerto (2009). In The Secret Sea, Monteleone describes the prow of the Nautilus as “a jagged sawtooth edge,” and its conning tower as resembling “the head of a nasty sea-creature” (67). Likewise, in his parody of Nemo and the Nautilus, Lansdale describes a great dorsal fin like an enormous shark or prehistoric fish, with the “eyes of the fish” being “a great, tinted, double-bubbled water shield” (58). The cover illustration of the tale’s “Naughty Lass” is an obvious homage to Goff. Mark Mellon, despite trying to achieve greater historical verisimilitude in his alternate history of Robert Fulton, whose real-world Nautilus was the world’s first functional submarine, describes his ship-wrecking war-machine with several nods to Goff:
Iron plates were bolted onto the wooden armature, laid fore to aft in overlapped layers like dragon scales. Glass eyes fixed in the beak, protected by a lattice of steel bars, accentuated the strange new ship’s distinctly reptilian appearance. (72)
And finally, Kevin J. Anderson’s steampunk recursive fantasy of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaire finds Nemo building this underwater vessel for despot Robur the Conquerer:
The new armored vessel lay like a half-submerged predatory fish tied up against the pilings. Eyelike portholes made of thick glass stared from the control bridge within the bow. Overlapping armor plates reminded him of the scales of the shark he had fought while adrift on a raft of flotsam from the Coralie. Jagged fins like saw-teeth lined the dorsal hull, the better for causing severe damage to wooden-keeled ships traversing the Suez. (355)
 All of these descriptions are closer to Goff’s design of the Nautilus than Verne’s original, which while initially mistaken for a sea-creature, cannot be mistaken as such close up, as Professor Aronnax discovers when first washed up upon the submarine vessel’s hull: “That blackish back on which I was sitting was glossy and smooth, with nothing like overlapping scales” (47, emphasis added). While Aronnax first imagines the ship as shaped “like an immense steel fish” (48), Nemo clarifies that it is an exceedingly practical shape for ocean travel: a 70-metre long cigar-shaped cylinder (84).

The influence of Goff’s Nautilus on the steampunk aesthetic is seen further in the proliferation of Nautilus designs at a websitecataloguing designs that don't depart drastically from Verne's vision, as in the case of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. While there are many which hold to Verne’s spartan design, there are many that are clearly using Goff’s design as their starting point. The online catalogue’s inclusion of these designs verifies Fleischer’s claim concerning the influence of the cinematic Leagues, which in many ways eclipses the novel in the popular imagination.

Anecdotally, nearly every steampunk convention I have attended has featured items in the vendor or artist halls clearly based on Goff’s design. The Vulcania Volunteers are a group of artists and craftsmen devoted solely to producing replica models and blueprints inspired by Goff’s design of The Nautilus. More obliquely, the “variety of disparate materials that can usually be found in any Steampunk conceived of device . . . wood, brass, rivets, gears, lenses, cast iron, etc,” (Sean Orlando, Kineticsteamworks.org) are found in Goff’s design. Take a Google perusal of steampunk art and compare it with Goff’s Nautilus and you’ll see what I mean. As Don Peri stated in Working with Walt, “Harper Goff is not widely known, but he left an indelible mark with his design of the Nautilus…” (193).    

One of the desktops for download at Vulcania Volunteers' website.
Check out Tom Scherman's Design for the Nautilus 2 - it's pretty cool!


  1. Well Writ - ALL!
    - Mikel / Modeleer
    ( Vulcania Volunteer & RE-VISIONEER )

  2. Generally speaking, I don't consider Disney's 20,000 Leagues film to be a Steampunk film (with more details available via the article I wrote, which I don't feel like finding at the moment), but I'd be willing to accept the actual, physical design of the Nautilus itself to be a piece of Steampunk art featured in the film.

  3. Great article with lots of great research! Thanks! I might argue that Lang's Metropolis is at least an equal contender for steam punk visual aesthetics.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts