Steampunk Rising11:25 AM EST Wed. May. 28, 2008
What if Charles Babbage's steam-powered computational engines had actually been built in the 1840s, bringing modern processing power online in the Victorian era? If the fantastic automobiles, airships and submarines imagined by Jules Verne had ushered in an age of high-tech adventure 100 years before such technological marvels became possible? The sub-cultural movement known as Steampunk is based upon just such musings, and it's gaining adherents by the day.
Self-styled "contraptors" like Richard Nagy and Jake Von Slatt take Steampunk's Neo-Victorian, clockwork aesthetic and apply it to their various hand-crafted creations, among the most prominent of which are contemporary computers custom modified, or modded, to look like artifacts from an age when form was at least as important as function. Von Slatt's lovingly crafted "Victorian All-in-One PC," shown here, is a prime example. But Steampunk isn't just an old-timey look slapped onto modern technology, says Ann VanderMeer, co-editor with her husband Jeff of "Steampunk," an anthology of Victorian-inspired fiction.
"Steampunk is much more than an aesthetic," says VanderMeer, who is both an award-winning publisher and software manager at a leading computer company. "It's also about putting your hands on something that you've made yourself. It's not simply a wide-eyed nostalgia for another time, but more about being more closely connected to what you create."
Steampunk as an active sub-culture arose from the science fiction sub-genre of the same name that became popular in the mid- to late-1990s. Novels like "The Difference Engine" by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling re-imagine a Victorian age where steam-powered technology is far more advanced than it really was in the 19th century. The rollicking, fantastical adventures created by Steampunk authors fit squarely in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but with the twist that modern writers know how technologies like computing actually developed and thus can retro-fit today's tech to an earlier time in an almost plausible fashion. The central conceit of "The Difference Engine," for example, is that Charles Babbage's designs for computational machines, which in reality were never built, have been developed to usher in the Information Age a full century before it actually occurred. Interestingly, the steam-powered computers in Gibson and Sterling's novel are inspired by Babbage's designs for what he called an "Analytical Engine," widely regarded today as the first architectural breakthrough in computing, not his separate plans for a Difference Engine, which was a very powerful but ultimately non-computational calculating machine. Did Gibson and Sterling simply make a mistake? Not likely, says Steampunk author G. D. Falksen, who guesses that the pair probably preferred the way "Difference Engine" rolls off the tongue to the clunkier "Analytical Engine." Falksen credits writers Kevin Jeter and Paul Di Filippo with coining the term "steampunk," a play on the sci-fi genre of "cyberpunk" that was popular in the 1980s and 90s.
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is a remarkable but ultimately tragic figure in the history of computing, known equally for designs that anticipated modern computing and for his failure to get any of them built. Recently, however, an international team led by Doron Swade, (pictured), of London's Science Museum successfully built the first-ever working models of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, one of which is currently on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. For ChannelWeb's extensive slide show and coverage of the Babbage Exhibit, click here.
Babbage and his sometime collaborator Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), considered by some to be the first "computer programmer," are iconic figures in the Steampunk sub-culture. The gears and cranks of Babbage's incredibly complex computational engines serve as inspiration for Steampunk modders like Richard Nagy and Jake Von Slatt, who custom-build working computers with the look and feel of Victorian-era contraptions. Asked what he would say to Swade if he met him, Von Slatt replies: "I'd just shake his hand and sort of be in awe."
Richard Nagy, a.k.a. Dr. Datamancer, is one of the rising stars in the world of Steampunk modding. The Chino, Calif.-based Nagy builds what he describes as "prestidigital datamancery & paraphernalic technofetishism" contraptions, including neo-Victorian computer keyboards, laptops and desktops, all of which work and command top dollar from his private clients and at auction. Nagy's custom-built systems can be seen at Datamancer.net. Unlike some Steampunk DIYers, Nagy is commercially minded, though his ambitions fall well short of volume production of his systems for the mainstream market.
"Personally, I would like to find myself in a niche market like Alienware or Voodoo. They were case modders and hardware tweakers who had the niche of very high-end gaming machines and who got enough notoriety that they were acquired by Dell and HP," Nagy tells ChannelWeb. "I don't know if I'd want to go the whole corporate selling-out route, but I'd definitely want to secure a niche market, you know, take Datamancer to Datamancer Incorporated."
Nagy calls this desktop computer he kitted out in Steampunk style the "Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine." Unhappy with how "buzzing beige rectangles under desks" failed to suitably honor "what is inarguably the most important invention of the last 50 years," Nagy set out to "retrocentrically" build a proper monument to the personal computer with this project.
A one-off, the Computational Engine has a modified liquid cooling system like many gaming systems, but Nagy used copper tubing to give the tower a more anachronistic look. He says future projects could take that aesthetic even further.
"I've seen a lot of really cool cooling systems coming out that look like Victorian contraptions on their own, you know, twisting copper pipes, stuff like that," Nagy says. "It's definitely something I'm going to experiment with, lots of skeletal cases, exposed circuitry, lots of pipes, modified liquid cooling systems where you actually see the water bubbling through them. I'm a big fan of actually seeing the mechanics of it."
Nagy's "Opti-Transcripticon" is a flatbed scanner built into a custom-fabricated leather-bound tome. While his main business is in building computer keyboards and display casings to custom specifications, the Steampunk modder also customizes cars and trucks and has ambitious plans to Victorianize popular consumer devices like Bluetooth headsets and smart phones.
"Every day I come up with new plans or gadgets," Nagy says, adding that the Opti-Transcripticon was built specifically to complement the Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine.
Nagy's Steampunk Laptop is perhaps his most famous work. Closed, this Hewlett-Packard ZT1000 notebook is hidden inside a mahogany-stained pine box featuring a display of clockwork gears under glass and sitting on signature claw feet. The outside may resemble a Victorian music box, but the modern technology inside runs both the Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux operating systems, according to Nagy. The laptop is switched on via an antique clock-winding key that connects to a custom-built ratcheting switch made from old clock parts.
Open up Nagy's Steampunk Laptop and soak in the old-timey lavishness of the hand-crafted wooden case, antiquated copper keyboard and touchpad, engraved brass accents and pair of leather wristpads. Small plastic gems are fixed to the keyboard to allow the original HP ZT1000 LEDs to shine through. Sound is transmitted through the violin-style sound holes, or "F-holes," which are functional speaker grills covered with black cloth, located at the top of the input deck.
On the left edge of the laptop just below the keyboard is the clock-winding key used to boot the machine, though Nagy has also kept the original power switch accessible through the speaker cloth. For a hard reboot, the user can take a pen or pencil and press down on the fabric in the center of the leftmost lobe of the F-hole to contact the button. For tinkerers interested in modding their own laptops with brass borders, Nagy has a video tutorial on his Web site.
Nagy does his briskest trade in computer keyboards, like "The Industrial," which he describes as "good, old-fashioned, dirty Steampunk." With hex nut keys, a frame of dirty aluminum with a mesh faceplate and "feet" made from old transmission planetary gears cut in half, The Industrial was recently sold on eBay. In addition to one-off mods like The Industrial, Nagy takes custom orders.
"People can always contact me, I'm very accessible. Usually I just strike up a conversation with somebody, feel out their aesthetic tastes and we go from there," he says.
Another Nagy keyboard, this is a specially commissioned variation on his "Sojourner" design built for an Occultist client. The piece features keys embossed with symbols from a 16th-century Occultist language called "Enochian" that was invented in England by would-be alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley. Nagy can earn several thousand dollars for a piece of working art such as this, but some in the Steampunk community think he could be making even more.
"People are always telling me to raise my prices. I'm a humble man so I almost feel guilty charging what I do now for keyboards, but the truth is the demand has greatly exceeded the supply, so that's what you do, raise prices," he says.
Jake Von Slatt's Steampunk persona is that of the gentleman scientist tinkering away on his clockwork contraptions, perhaps hoping to one day present his discoveries to the Royal Academy in London. By day a Linux systems administrator named Sean Slattery, in his other life as "Hieronymus Isambard 'Jake' Von Slatt," he applies Neo-Victorian mods to cars, school buses and computers in his Steampunk Workshop in the Boston area.
ChannelWeb caught up with Von Slatt at the recent Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., where he set up shop in the Contraptor's Lounge with Richard Nagy and other Steampunk enthusiasts from around the country.
Like Richard Nagy, Von Slatt freely offers Web tutorials for fellow modders interested in how he goes about his Steampunk projects. Pictured here is a stage in Von Slatt's process for creating the Neo-Victorian keyboard that accompanies his Victorian All-in-One PC. Unlike Nagy, Von Slatt isn't interested in turning his hobby into a career.
"I make my projects for fun, for an excuse to spend time in the shop making things," he says. Indeed, the Victorian All-in-One PC is Von Slatt's personal computer, replacing a pumpless water-cooled desktop he built himself. "I used to work for a company that did automotive cooling systems, so it just seemed to me that there should be no need for a pump. ... It was completely convective cooling to make the coolant flow through it. It operated flawlessly up until I replaced it with the Victorian All-in-One."
Inspired by a faux marble computer display mod by Jake Von Slatt, Steampunk Workshop fan Dave Veloz converted an Apple Mac mini, monitor and keyboard into an elegant suite of working Victoriana for his fiance Jenn, presenting it to her on their wedding day.
"He's done an absolutely beautiful job, outdoing me in several respects, the first being the use of actual granite for the monitor's base," says Von Slatt. "His treatment of the Mac mini ... is brilliant in its simplicity and execution."
Neo-Victorian objets d'art don't necessarily have to be practical to be widely admired in the Steampunk community. Case in point, British-based artist Doktor A's brilliant retro-fitting of video gaming, the iconic Pac Gentleman, which comes complete with its own amusing back story:
"When this game was first released in 1880 it was so hugely popular in taverns and inns that the Bank of England was forced to mint more three-penny bits to keep up with demand. The game was created by Messrs. Nam & Nam and Co. as a novelty pastime for the masses, outdoing the previous top public house game of Shove Ha'penny."
The mysterious Doktor A claims a teacher once told him, "You will never make a living drawing little men." Such doubters were "nearly right," the Doktor notes, seeing as how he "has to draw, design and build little men to make a living."
This piece, "Professor Whistlecraft's Astounding Incendiary Automaton," was built by Doktor A from vinyl, brass, lead, steel, chestnut wood, copper, velvet, vintage clock parts, foam rubber, leather, styrene, paper and polyurethane resin. Toy maker MINDstyle has a forthcoming line of toys designed by Doktor A called Mechtorians; until you can get your hands on one, check out his other unique creations at Spookypop.com.
A Michigan Tech student known as "Jake of All Trades" is the creator of this functional Steampunk computer mouse. Jake, about whom few details are known, has developed an elaborate back story for the invention of this mouse, or "The Bug" as it is called by "the eccentric William C. Ravenscroft," its fictional creator.
Ravenscroft, so the story goes, built his Bug to complement the "Telecalculograph," a destop PC modded out in Steampunk fashion. In reality, as Jake reveals on his blog, The Bug was built from scrounged parts, including two large gears harvested from an old pH-stat device built by Sargent Tools, set around a cheap computer mouse. The circuit board is hidden from view under a brass-plated steel corner piece from a steamer trunk and a cog covers the back while still allowing some LED light to glow through.
Japanese watchmaker Haruo Suekichi makes unique, perfectly functional timepieces that are as uncomfortable looking as they are highly coveted by Steampunk enthusiasts. According to Suekichi, the idea to build such odd-looking contraptions came to him when a one-armed man asked him to build a watchband that he could slip his wrist into and have it fasten without needing another hand to do it.
Steampunk-modded pistols are a popular prop for enthusiasts of the adventurer/explorer aspect to Neo-Victorianism. These mods were part of a large collection of Steampunk artifacts in the Contraptor's Tent at May's Maker Faire at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. Headlining the Faire was Abney Park, a Steampunk-inspired rock act from Seattle that presents itself as a band of globe-trotting "airship pirates" led by "Captain" Robert Brown.
"Basically, 100 years ago in the Victorian era, the world wasn't completely explored, but nowadays we live in this era where every square inch is mapped and photographed from space," says Brown, explaining the appeal in a world of corporatism and mass-produced goods of recreating a past where "there were so many things waiting to be invented and places waiting to be explored."
Oakland, Calif.-based Tom Sepe's "Whirlygig Emoto" is a mod of a 1967 Tote-Gote off-road motorcycle frame with a 15hp electric motor. The Whirlygig Emoto features a working steam boiler in the back, though Sepe admits "it's stretching the truth a bit" to call the bike "steam-powered."
"I had the possibility of putting a steam piston on the bike," he tells Meredith Scheff of the Steampunk Workshop. "But the more I looked into it, my deadline of getting it out the door was more than the scope of what I was learning. And I realized making a Steampunk-inspired motorcycle was what I was going for. So it has a steam boiler on the back, which I use for steam effects, but there's no actual link-up between the boiler and the wheels."
David Dowling and Molly "Porkshanks" Friedrich travelled to California for the Maker Faire from Boston and Seattle, respectively. The two prefer a Victorian look that contrasts with the bustles and top hats of many Steampunk enthusiasts who find a more obviously aristocratic ensemble appealing. With his understated working-class get-up, Dowling says he is simply reflecting his real-world job as a metal shop worker, while Molly seems as if she would be as comfortable piloting a dirigible as patrolling the fairgrounds.
Jess Nevins, a science fiction writer and author of the introduction to the VanderMeers' "Steampunk" anthology, thinks the emphasis in the sub-culture on aristocratic tinkerers and gentlemen adventures is historically laughable.
"The Victorian age, especially the late Victorian age, was an uncertain, dark and desperate time for most Victorians, full of gender, religious, economic, cultural and military fears, and it was only a relative handful of men who could live lives of comfort and ease," Nevins writes. "And yet novels and movies and television would have us believe that it was some kind of Golden Age of manners and fashion. I like Steampunk that's aware that the male inventor, in his comfortable lab, is outnumbered by the prostitutes on the streets of London and the coal miners dying of black lung in Yorkshire and Wales."
Steampunk "vampire hunters" Kory, left, and Mineke pose at 2007's Convergence 13 goth festival in Portland, Ore. While tech modders have been getting the bulk of the coverage in traditional media and from bloggers like Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow, observers like author G.D. Falksen think a real trend towards the mainstreaming of Neo-Victorian fashion is being overlooked amidst all the hubbub over cool gadgets.
"A major reason for the interest in Steampunk or Victorian fashion is that it looks good on anyone, male or female, regardless of build or body type," Falksen says. "The same can't be said about most 20th century fashions, which heavily favor tall and thin women and very muscular men."
Falksen's friend and fellow Steampunk enthusiast Evelyn Kriete is more blunt: "One of the reason girls are jumping on this trend is that if you put on a corset and bustle, you can be 10 lbs. overweight or thin as a rail and I guarantee you will look good in it."
The Neverwas Haul, seen here at the 2007 Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nev., was built by a Bay Area-based group calling itself the Imperial Hibernian Ministry of Insanity and led by Shannon O'Hare of Orinda, Calif. The self-propelled three-story Victorian house sits on a travel trailer, is made from 75 percent recycled equipment and materials and features a Grand Stage for performances and demonstrations of Victorian-era technology.
Measuring 24 feet long by 24 feet high by 12 feet wide, the Neverwas Haul is perhaps the most ambitious Steampunk contraption that has been built to date. Highlights of the Haul include a steam/solar distiller system, working steam boilers, a bio-peat mill and a camera obscura. It has been accompanied by O'Hare and his fellow Victorian-costumed players to events such as Burning Man and the Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif.
Another large-scale work to emerge from the Neo-Victorian sub-culture is the Steampunk Treehouse. Like the Neverwas Haul, the Treehouse was built for the Burning Man festival but has since been assembled at other venues.
At the Maker Faire in May, Steampunk contraptor Jake Von Slatt showed ChannelWeb early sketches of what could become the most ambitious Steampunk project yet -- a mobile exhibition hall designed to emulate the colossal cast iron-and-glass Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park, London to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Few people can afford a Datamancer laptop and fewer still have the drive to spend hundreds of hours modding their own Steampunk PCs. But if the old-timey, distressed aesthetic of Steampunk is truly gaining a foothold in the mainstream imagination, it seems likely to materialize with smaller-scale mods like Tom Mordasky's "Clockwork Powerbook."
Starting with an Apple Pismo Powerbook, Mac modder Mordasky used a utility knife to cut through the soft plastic lid of the notebook and fitted in his pre-assembled collection of eBay-purchased clock parts, aluminum sheet metal, gloss and bronze paint. Voila! A simple but elegant Steampunk accent for a popular consumer latptop.
How mainstream is the Steampunk look? Mainstream enough to be stamped on flimsy plastic and rolled out in volume for iPod owners who want a cheap, skin-deep adornment for their MP3 players like the Gelaskin product at left. While hard-core Steampunk modders and deeply invested Neo-Victorian scenesters scoff at such commercialization of their hard-won aesthetic, they can't fault the original art on this iPod skin by London-born, Australia-based author and illustrator Colin Thompson.
But what does it mean when superficial Steampunk like Thompson's iPod skins become just another emblem of faux individuality, like the Ralph Steadman "Dr. Gonzo" iPhone skins they share a berth with in the Gelaskins stable? Is it just a harmful diluting of the Neo-Victorian sub-culture, or does it simply reflect the fact that Steampunk has truly arrived?
"As a long time subscriber to Vogue Magazine -- seriously -- I would say that the world of fashion always is seeking something new and unique," says Ann VanderMeer. "The punk movement of the late 70's moved into the mainstream culture. So did the grunge movement, although I never found that one to be particularly appealing. People will gravitate to what they find attractive, to what they see as beautiful regardless of where it originates."