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Why is Alchemy a Part of Steampunk?

Alchemy was that weird branch of science prevalent mostly in the Dark Ages, but later died down. You can find bits and pieces of it still floating around, but only in strange places. So why does it arise in steampunk stories?

To answer that, we must first uncover what alchemy is really all about. Alchemy was the science that predated chemistry. People had clearly observed different “things” interacting with other “things”, and clearly wanted to make certain things happen.

The “science” of alchemy

Calling alchemy a science is a bit fuzzy, given the scientific method we know about today really only goes back to the 17th Century, whereas alchemy is much older than that.

If you dig into the writings of practicing alchemists back in the day, you’ll find that it was less about “science” and more about philosophy. People didn’t conduct experiments to prove or disprove ideas like we do today. Instead, they simply reasoned their way through things. Lifting a finger to carry out an experiment was viewed as an almost distasteful practice.

Probably the most prominent facet of alchemy we know of were attempts to convert “base” metals to “noble” metals. In other words, could you take a worthless block of lead and transmute it into gold? Everyone would be knocking down your door for the formula, making you rich.

The philosophy of alchemy

Now we can’t ding people back in the day for connecting this to philosophy. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates were instrumental in founding the earliest schools.

And as people came together and grew in their desire to learn about the world, so came the desire to tackle the human condition. People sought solutions to things like extend life, food, money, and other facets of their lives. No wonder they conducted experiments to see if the means to enhance things existed!

The steampunk of alchemy

Now the concept of creating a potion that empowers an airship to travel to another planet, run by a crew smells quite…steampunk-ish. Yeah?

I can visualize this mechanism as being the basis of a story. A captain and his crew realize they must traverse to a distant planet to bring back a critical…cure? So they deploy a potion. Only…the means to return are missing on the other planet. And so they must use other means to figure it all out. And get back before it’s all over!

Okay, I just took the plot to the movie Stargate and rehabbed it into a steampunk themed story with a little alchemy stirred in.

But you get the idea. Some stories lean on the mechanicals. Others have magic. And hey, if potions were good enough for Harry Potter, they’re good enough for your favorite steampunk world.

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