Steampunk Boston


Steampunk continues to be “discovered” by mainstream journalists. The latest is Peter Bebergal at the Boston Globe.

He has put together a good overview of steampunk techniartists currently so visible and their best work, including such well known and beloved figures, oft mentioned in this blog and others, as Mr. Von Slatt and Datamancer.

While there is little new here for the true aficionado, it is an excellent introduction to the steampunk arts for the uninitiated or the rube.

The following originially appeared in The Boston Globe.

The age of steampunk

Nostalgia meets the future, joined carefully with brass screws

An inventor who goes by the name Datamancer has modified his laptop so that its popular qualities — light, thin, resistant to falls — are lost. But something even more wondrous has emerged. Datamancer’s laptop is completely encased in mahogany-stained pine, like a Victorian music box, resting on clawed brass feet. Leather patches set with handmade brass tacks serve as wrist wrests, and the keyboard consists of typewriter keys. To boot it up, you must wind a key.

If you ask Datamancer why he would bother to do such a thing, he would give you a simple answer. It’s all for the love of steampunk.

Steampunk has its roots in science fiction literature, where it describes a corner of the genre obsessed with Victoriana and the idea that the computer age evolved alongside the industrial. Steampunk stories, which started appearing with regularity in the 1980s, eschew clean and orderly visions of the future in favor of gas-lighted streets, steam engines belching toxic smoke, and dastardly villains inventing strange technologies. Dirigibles rule the air, and the upper classes employ clockwork servants to serve their meals.

In the past two years, though, steampunk has emerged in the real world, as Datamancer and a growing number of enthusiasts build steampunk objects and then share photos of them on the Internet. One of the first was the appearance last summer of a group of robots designed by the San Francisco Bay Area artist I-Wei Huang: They look like 19th-century locomotives with legs and are literally steam powered. This year alone has produced steampunk watches from Japan (bizarre assemblages of rusted brass, cracked leather, and antique watch faces) and a steampunk tree house (a steaming metal tree that houses a main room with all manner of secret compartments and drawers) at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. There is even steampunk fashion, such as a combination dress/overalls adorned with gears and belt loops for every lady’s steampunk tools.

In their embrace of the toothy cog and the sooty pipe, this guild of steampunk hackers represents a rebellion of sorts against our iPhone moment. It’s a time of technological wonders: flat-panel TVs you can hang like paintings; forms of instant communication to almost anywhere in the world; and phones no bigger than a wallet that play music and help you find your way in a forest. But in all this new technology there is nothing lasting to appreciate: Each new version is obsolescent the moment it appears, and all of it is literally superficial, with its innovations hidden in silicon chips behind hard plastic. We have museums dedicated to preserving steam engines and mechanical watches. It’s hard to imagine a future museum preserving every example of Blackberry. What we want to preserve about technology also becomes a reflection of what is human about it, the spirit of invention and craftsmanship. No one would suggest that the iPhone isn’t a marvel, but there’s something vaguely alienating about a device that doesn’t allow users to replace their own batteries. And why bother? You’ll toss it with the rest when the new model appears.

“The iPhone might be sleek and well-designed within its mode, but there’s no way it can compete in luxe qualities with some Victorian equivalent,” said author Paul Di Filippo, the first to use the term “steampunk” in a title of a book, “The Steampunk Trilogy.” Steampunk “embodies both handicraft and mass-production elements in a rich visual vocabulary totally lacking in today’s plastic, cheap-jack gadgets.”

These steampunk engineers are also part of a broader surge in the do-it-yourself mind-set, fueled by the sharing spirit of the Web. It was the do-it-yourself spirit that powered the first Apple computers and the early days of the Internet, but much of the technology developed from these things has become a closed system: DRM-protected music, Microsoft’s proprietary nature, even the dependence on single carriers for cable television and cellphones. There is a punk ethos to the social communities of today’s Web, in which users are trying to wrest content away from the marketers and commercial media. But hard technology has mostly resisted this little rebellion. When opening up your computer to hack around a little bit for fun voids your warranty, better to leave it alone until it’s time to buy a new one.

Steampunk artists like Datamancer often post instructive blogs ( about their work with the hope that others will try their hand at making something themselves. What makes a steampunk object work is not a mysterious process. Open the hinged cover, unscrew the valve, turn it upside down, and look at the bottom. How it’s made and what it does are inseparable qualities. But more than that, this kind of blog reveals the spectacular things that people can do with a Dremel tool and a little imagination. And Datamancer and others give permission to forgo your warranty in favor of something that has a personal quality to it.

There is here a deep historical connection to the spirit of Victorian invention, Di Filippo says. During the Victorian era, the amateur could still compete with the professional in a number of crafts. It was a time when naturalists and other nonprofessional scientists were responsible for amassing important collections of biological specimens and for naming a number of asteroids and stars.

“The entirety of knowledge could be almost apprehended by a single individual,” says Di Filippo. “There were still frontiers. There were fewer laws and governing bodies. Who wouldn’t want all of those things back?”

. . .

The term “steampunk” is a play on cyberpunk, a type of near-future science fiction where rebellious hackers use handmade tech to wage virtual warfare with corporations and governments. Steampunk was a term used almost jokingly as a name for science fiction that was set in the Victorian era as opposed to the virtual future, but which still featured rebellious protagonists utilizing strange technology. In steampunk, the punk is not a computer hacker, but a mechanical one.

The influence on steampunk literature goes as far back as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but those authors can’t really be considered steampunk because they were writing about their own era. Michael Moorcock’s “The Warlord of the Air” (1971), “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” (1992) by James P. Blaylock, “The Difference Engine” (1991) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and Di Filippo’s “Steampunk Trilogy” (1995) are often cited as the central steampunk novels. In “The Difference Engine,” the visionary artist William Blake gives Powerpoint presentations using a kind of magnetic tile device. In a novel released this year, Jay Lake’s “Mainspring,” the sun revolves around the earth along a system of celestial gears.

Yet steampunk has also evolved as an aesthetic unto itself, drawing on a number of diverse references. Goth, which has its own anachronistic sensibility, borrowing heavily from Victorian styles such as corsets, offers an early glimpse of steampunk. Punk lent elements of leather and metal, as well as the DIY attitude. The film “Brazil” is of particular inspiration, where technology looks like junk, and the rebel fights against a technocratic authority. But one of the most important influences has to be Japanese animation, or anime, which is replete with images of mechanical robots, neo-Zeppelin starships, goggle-wearing hackers, and the melding of the techno with the organic.

There doesn’t appear to be anyone more prolific than the Littleton resident von Slatt, whose website ( keeps an account of his wondrous inventions. IT manager by day, mad steampunk scientist by night, the pseudonymous von Slatt has built some elaborate steampunk creations: a flat-panel monitor framed in brass that sits on a marble base; a computer keyboard with a brass cradle and individually applied round keys from an old typewriter; and a steampunk Stratocaster guitar on which he etched gears and springs on a brass plate.

Von Slatt got started with steampunk design when he was customizing a school bus into a mobile home inspired by 19th-century British canal boats. After posting his progress on the Web he discovered there were dozens of other people doing similar design work. Von Slatt is now a member of the Web-based Steampunk Forum, which has more than 1,000 members discussing 2,400 topics.

Von Slatt refers to current technology and engineering as jellybeans: There are different colors and sizes, but mostly everything is alike. “Steampunk is a backlash to the sameness of design. In Victorian times, decoration was integrated with the form and the function. Individual components were beautiful.”

One designer, going by the name Kaden, has designed what he named the “Original Model 420 Pneumatiform Infumationizer.” What looks like the mechanism of an atomizer has been lovingly attached to a ball of glass and a series of pipes, ending in a long brass tube with a small breathing mask. The device looks like it would be quite at home in an otherworldly opium den.

Objects like the Infumationizer show that steampunk is also simply a love of the fantastic. Steampunk hackers are often science fiction geeks at heart. There’s a love of things that don’t exist, except in some alternate world, like the “Peltier-Seebeck Recycled Energy Generating Device” and the “Aetheric Flux Agitator Mk2.” One of Datamancer’s other inventions is a modified enclosure for his desktop computer, which he calls “The Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine.” He used the cabinet of 1920 tube radio, a turn of the century Underwood typewriter, and various parts and pieces to create a functional, completely anachronistic, impossibly real computer.

In all of the new steampunk design there is a strong nostalgia for a time when technology was mysterious and yet had a real mark of the craftsperson burnished into it, like the “Nagy” of Datamancer’s “computational engine.” In the Victorian era and at the turn of the century, people watched in astonishment as technology changed their lives, but they were also in awe of the inventors and scientists, some of whom became celebrities in their own right, like Edison and Tesla.

Magpie Killjoy, an editor for Steampunk magazine, first published this year, thinks the impetus for this design movement goes very deep. Killjoy is saddened at the state of technology today. It is homogeneous, she says, and there is too much reliance on fossil fuels and mass production. She sees steampunk as a way of going backward in time to the moment we could have made a different choice.

“A lot of people are unconsciously drawn to this time period because there was marvel and wonder to be found in machines. You can see this in the level of ornamentation that Victorian technology was endowed with — each individual clock and cannon was a work of art unto its own,” she says. “There was a time when machines were new, and they could go any direction.”


  1. […] Steampunk a mainstreamben (megjelent a Boston Globe cikke a steampunkról, elég átfogó, meglepően, eredeti itt) […]

  2. It’s not just the whole, forefront-of-the-advancing-wave idea, though. It’s definitely–for me, at least–the sense of individuality and ornamentation. I look at a laptop from Dell and a laptop from Compaq and a laptop from Apple, and by and large, they’re all the same thing. I won’t say the parts are interchangeable, but you can take one and use parts from the other two and make it work, if there’s need.

    Conversely, I’m thinking the early age of electricity. Several people made lightbulbs–all hand-blown, all hand-wired, some definitely worked better than others–but they were all different, they all had their own aesthetic sense that came into play. By the same extension, given appropriate materials and tools, if I retrofit some piece of technology–I have definite plans for an .mp3 player, for instance–it won’t look like other retrofits, it will be something that my heart and mind found appropriate.

    Steampunk does owe much to cyberpunk, and there are similar themes. But cyberpunk exists in that biomechanical arena of sameness–and steampunk profoundly does not. Steampunk values the individual over the consensus, the artist over the mass-produced.

    I think that’s what draws so many of us, to greater or lesser agree. You may not always agree with why part of your neighbor’s house exploded–but I assure you, you’re going to go over and find out why, and be no doubt fascinated with the experimentation that went into such explosion.

    (And then scurry home, perhaps knowing what your Pneumatic Triple-Elevation Courier Vessel may need so that it will not explode..)

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