The most relevant precursor to steampunk is arguably this cheesy little 60s TV show that used to play on Sunday afternoons when i was a kid, and which i adored. James West is fucking cool.
The show played from 1965-69. The Western, long a staple of the TV and movie industry was clearly dying out. Michael Garrison and Gregory Ratoff, the duo who created the show, had the idea of combining the western hero with James Bond, which was now in vogue.
The premise is simple, secret service agents James West (straight faced ass kicker) and Artemus Gordon (wise ass master of disguise) travel about in a big locomotion, protecteding the United States and President Ulysses S. Grant from all manner of dangers.
What makes it a precursor to steampunk is that the common villain was often a mad scientists type, using fringe science to come up with some dastardly way to threaten the safety of the US, the President, or of course James West.
The most proficient of these villains, the main arch nemesis if you will, was Dr. Loveless, a megalomaniac dwarf played by the wonderful Michael Dunn. He and the other villains used a slew of futuristic neo science concoctions for their nefarious plans, including:
- An earthquake making device.
- A brainwashing device using intense sight and sound.
- A cyborg, i.e., a man who replaced much of his flesh and bone with metal, making him strong and nearly invulnerable.
- An early flamethrower.
- Man-sized steam-driven puppets.
- Jars that could preserve disembodied human brains and draw upon their knowledge and psychic force.
- The Juggernaut, a steam-powered triangular tank with a battering ram.
- A potion, made from liquefied diamond, which enabled a man to move so fast as to be invisible.
- An LSD-like hallucinogen, capable of driving men into fits of killing madness.
- A cathode-ray-tube (television).
- A torpedo disguised as a dragon and capable of homing on a radio signal.
- An invisible electronic force field that disintegrates anything that came in contact with it.
- A drug capable of shrinking a man down to a height of 6″.
- A suit of armor that acted as an exoskeleton.
- A tidal wave-making device that generated giant bubbles.
- A sonic device that allowed the use of paintings as a portal to other dimensions.
- Crystals that, when surgically implanted inside the brain and then shattered by a high-pitched noise, caused the subject to turn into a criminal.
- A giant falcon-shaped cannon, capable of devastating a small town with a single shot.
- A giant tuning fork device mounted on wheels.
- A locomotive modified with a large battering ram to collide with oncoming trains and derail them.
In any case, here’s a last little fun look at what was one of the prominent pop culture precursors to steampunk, a delight to children, and many a girl and gay boy’s first heartthrob. (Seriously. Girls and gay guys LOVE his butt. I have listened to a handful of people wax eloquent at LENGTH on the impact that James West’s butt had on their hormonal development.)