I have read a few different articles by people who believe that Steampunk as a genre is driven by violence. For instance, Harry Markov insists in his article for the multicultural Steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana that Steampunk is completely driven by war. The American Civil War and the impending first world war are certainly used as backdrops for Steampunk literature, and there are plenty of stories about fictitious places and made up wars, but I think saying that war is at the heart of the entire genre is broad overstatement.
Perhaps people have gained this misconception because gadgets, vehicles and creative technology are definitely key to Steampunk and war offers a great opportunity for mad scientists to flex their skills. The American Civil War and the over-hanging cloud of World War I are popular backdrops for Steampunk stories, as well as other conflicts like the Second French Revolution (Dark Portals: Chronicles of Vidoqc). And it is definitely true that many of the greatest technological advances in human history have been the result of weapons research. But, our quest to travel in space also drove an era of inventions that we still use widely today (click here for some examples). War may act as a catalyst for technology, but so does curiosity, and there is no reason to think that inventors are stymied without it.
And as central as old/new-fangled technology is to Steampunk, it is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. Steampunk is a means of exploring so many other concepts than war-driven tech that it is a discredit to distill an entire genre to one thing just because it is the most obvious. I would say that challenging gender roles and Victorian society is just as central if not more so than the technological aspect. Women who transcend their corsets and the men who come to appreciate them as equals pop up all over the genre.
And of course, references to and re-imaginings of classic science fiction and 20th century historical figures is where it all began. I would argue that if you had to choose only one thing about Steampunk to highlight this is the most unique and quintessential piece to the puzzle.
What do you think? Have you found war to be more central to Steampunk than I am giving it credit for? Or do you agree that violence does not need to be the key ingredient in a Steampunk story?