Steampunk is all about what ifs!
These "what ifs" occur when a technological development happens at a different time than what history tells us it actually did. In the Steampunk Worlds we play with, this is the divergence that gives us the reason to play with alternate histories.
I was reading some online articles about technological developments during the 19th Century, the developments that lead to our current worlds in fact, trying to find points in time to do some "What If" brainstorming on, just for fun. I came across this one at Civil War Trust which discusses the effect that the development of Whitney's Cotton Gin in 1794 had on the subsequent history of the American South.
This machine revolutionized the process of separating cotton from its seed, making it dramatically faster and less expensive to turn picked cotton into usable cotton for textiles. Eli Whitney invented the gin in 1794, and by 1850 the tool had changed the face of Southern agriculture. Before Whitney’s gin entered into widespread use, the United States produced roughly 750,000 bales of cotton, in 1830. By 1850 that amount had exploded to 2.85 million bales. This production was concentrated almost exclusively in the South, because of the weather conditions needed for the plant to grow. Faster processing of cotton with the gin meant it was profitable for landowners to establish previously-unthinkably large cotton plantations across the south. But harvesting cotton remained a very labor-intensive undertaking. Thus, bigger cotton farms meant the need for more slaves. The slave population in the United States increased nearly five-fold in the first half of the 19th Century, and by 1860, the South provided about two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply. Southern wealth had become reliant on this one crop and thus was completely dependent on slave-labor.This is a classic "unintended consequence" of technological development that was unlikely to have been foreseen by anyone at the time.
So if we look at some major technological darlings of Steampunk, like the Babbage Engine or Airships for example, one can see that the probable unintended consequences of actual utilization of these technologies would have dwarfed that of potentially the entire Industrial Revolution to that point. Both of these two, as just one example, are disruptive technologies, they influence many aspects of society and make possible much more rapid development of other technologies. Like the snowball effect that the microchip had in the 20th Century.
Many of Tesla's inventions, should they have been fully developed, would likely have done the same.
I think that is what makes Steampunk such an interesting genre to play with. We can keep the world mostly as it was for atmosphere, then change one development, the "What Ifs", and then let the unintended consequences run their course.
That my friends is Magick!
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.