A wonderful, crazy, new art form has hit Oxford. ‘Steampunk’ is the subject of a (very) special exhibition, running at the Museum of the History of Science, featuring 18 of what must be the world’s loopiest artist/craftspeople. I mean that as a compliment — it is a long time since I have seen visitors to an exhibition so animated.

Down in the basement, where they seem remarkably at home in a Frankensteinish sort of way, are some of the most imaginative works of art you will see this side of the Surrealists — combinations of re-invented machine and instrument parts, shining brass, hand-stitched leather, ticking things and pressure gauges, with just enough of the familiar about them to suggest they have come straight out of someone’s dream (or nightmare).

Influenced by the science fiction and fantasy writers of the 19th century and by Victorian technology, some are re-interpretations of modern electronic gizmos (such as Dr Grymm’s startling ‘Eye Pod’ audio device, with its huge eyeball.

Others, such as Kris Kuksi’s ‘Anglo-Parisian Barnstormer’ — an extraordinary synthesis of Viking longboat, aeroplane, horse-drawn carriage and Eiffel Tower — are flights of pure, wild, and sometimes powerfully discomfiting, fancy.

The exhibition curator is American Steampunk designer and lamp sculptor, Art Donovan — unlike many of his fellow artists, he uses his real name rather than one of the faintly-Teutonic-mad-scientist pseudonyms much in evidence at the show.

“Steampunk is a very new version of the work of Jules Verne, H G Wells and Mary Shelley,” he told me.

“About two years ago artists who were creating these kinds of things started putting them on the Internet, and an online community developed. It is where they get together and exchange ideas – like the cafés where the Cubists met to drink absinthe.”

Their work is extremely labour-intensive because of its complexity, and can take as long as a year to produce.

Steampunk culture has expanded to include films, a selection of which will be shown at MHS on December 9, and fashion — the braces, toppers, motoring goggles and pocket watches worn by some of the exhibition visitors certainly add to the atmosphere.

“Steampunk enthusiasts can’t be characterised,” said Art, “there are teenagers and there are also 70 year-olds. It is not just a boys’ club either, even though it is techno-centric.

“The term ‘Steampunk’ was coined by an American science fiction writer, K W Jeter, as a tongue-in-cheek response to the ‘cyberpunk’ literature of the 1980s, in which dystopian futures were depicted, with punks — young renegades outside normal society — battling the forces of oppression using mashed-together devices.

“Steampunk artists are outsiders but not, like most artists, lone individuals — they are working together, with a common love of science fiction, fantasy and antique technology.” Some of those featured in the exhibition, had been consciously working in the Steampunk genre, Art explained. James Richardson-Brown, for instance, whose ‘Ambulatory Intercommunication Device’, combining bits of plumbing with a tiny mock-ivory cameo, is on show, and Molly ‘Porkshanks’ Friedrich, whose ‘Complete Mechanical Womb’, made from an old glass cylinder with brass ends and primitive electrical cable acting as the umbilical cord, contains a highly detailed and articulated brass baby.

I was unable to discover the significance of her nickname ‘Porkshanks’.

The work of other craftsmen, he said, had been only recently embraced by fans of the Steampunk aesthetic.

These include the Dutchman Jos de Vink, whose hand-made Stirling engines (using a system invented in 1814 to produce movement from heat) can be seen in motion on film at the exhibition and examined below the screen in stationary 3D.

“Steampunk is very diversified,” said Art. “There is no official manifesto — you can go back to the Renaissance with ‘clock punk’, which is da Vinci-inspired, and up to ‘diesel punk’, inspired by the diesel engines of the 1930s.

“The show divides into two categories, the practical and the fanciful, and it encompasses everything from the dark and eerie, to the humorous, to the sublime.” Tom Banwell is a self-taught leather craftsman and avid childhood hat collector from the improbable-sounding town of Rough and Ready, California.

His helmets, accurately described by Art as “gorgeous and frightening at the same time”, are an example of the macabre element. Their components hint at some disturbing physiognomies beneath the masks: what kind of vaguely human creature, for instance, would need the help of stainless steel tubing resembling a jelly-mould crossed with a sea anemone in order to breathe? It is quite a relief to come round the corner to the Belgian artist Stéphane Halleux’s ‘Beauty Machine’, in which a woman, who seems to have strayed from a Wallace and Gromit animation, suffers the attentions of a robot that has gone well beyond the limits of usefulness — the concept behind all the work Halleux is exhibiting at MHS. “It is an absolute delight” said Art. “His characters are so light-hearted, with such personality.”

The sublime aspect of Steampunk finds expression in the pieces by the watch and clock-makers at the exhibition — Vianney Halter from (naturally) Switzerland, and Eric Freitas from the USA.

Part of Vianney’s inspiration comes from the work of the distinguished 18th — 19th century horologist, Antide Janvier, one of whose astronomical clocks can be seen in the Museum entrance hall. Art was familiar with the museum and its history, including the basement’s previous incarnation as a 17th century chemistry and dissection lab, when he approached the director, Jim Bennett, with his idea for the exhibition. “I knew it from the Internet,” he explained. “I had based a piece of mine on a beautiful Persian astrolabe, made by Muhammad b. AbiBakr in 1221 or 1222, that I found on the museum website. This is the pre-eminent location for such an exhibition. You can look at all its elements and find their equivalents in Dr Bennett’s Museum.”

In the last part of the show visitors can see some of these inspirational early machines, several of which are every bit as weird and intriguing as the fantasy versions. A great example of this is the 1949 thermonucleic fusion torus. Its flailing legs remind one irresistibly of Dr Grymm’s ‘Squid Attack Goggles’. “When you see a fanciful Steampunk device placed next to a scientific invention taken directly from practical science you see science fact becoming science fiction,” concluded Art. “And, as it is seen with new eyes, again becoming science fact.”