I’ve read too many stories lately about steampunk inventors that have no life, social or otherwise, are independently wealthy, and live in a vacuum (or on an island in the middle of the ocean).
An inventor does not have the time to mine, smelt, cast and then form his own copper wire for his high speed telegraph invention or forge the steel plate for his improved hyper-pressure steam boiler invention. There were people that made the wire and steel and other things and tools for a living. If he did make his own wire he would probably end up in the wire making business and all his inventions would be about making wire, better and faster.
Inventors like writers need day jobs. Thomas Edison has a series of day jobs till he started earning enough from some telegraph patents that he could establish his own lab and do nothing but invent.
Inventors did not work in the dark. The Wright brothers, when they decided to build an airplane they ordered every book they could on the subject. That included tables of information from Lilienthal. After a glider they built did not have the lift the tables said it should, the Wright brothers did some experiments and found that the century old value for the Smeaton coefficient was to high. This was one of the major advances made by the Wright brother. They built interments and did experiments, they challenged the excepted theories. Using a new value they determined from their experiments including the use of a home built wind tunnel they designed a new wing that worked better. Others had figured out that the value was wrong, but you had to look closely at their data to figure it out. Even back then, inventors wrote up their results and talked to each other.
The Wright brothers were not wealthy. They owned and ran a bicycle shop. They hand built bicycles. Sometimes out of wood. Would your steam punk inventor stoop to using wood to build one of his creations? The Wright brothers earned an income, were part of the community. They were secretive, worried someone would steal their inventions, but they were not hermits.
So come with me and strike a blow to the cliché of the hermit inventors with the magical supply of raw and processed materials and inexhaustible supply of spare parts. Take a look at real inventors and make your inventor a part, a participant of your steampunk society.
Stay strong, write on, and give your characters a life.
Professor Hyram Voltage