Remembering Yesterdays' Tomorrows

Steampunk goes boom

[August 2007]



In the summer of 2007, I suggested to The New York Times that they should run a story on steampunk culture — how it had broken beyond mere tinkerers into domestic life. They gave it a green light and then killed the story for reasons unknown. I usually don't exhibit unpublished work, but after the Times ran its own new steampunk culture story, I thought — in the vein of steampunk's attention to revisionist alternative histories — that it would be appropriate. So here it is.

It’s called the Telecalculograph. Amid modern contrivances – a digital picture frame, a mini-fridge stuffed with ramen packets and instant lemonade, a Back to the Future poster, a Game Boy Advance, “Seinfeld” DVDs, a folding 18-speed Fuji bicycle and bland summer-camp-meets-garage-sale dorm furniture – the Telecalculograph looms like a Franklin stove. It is a computer made to look like a Victorian furnace. When the computer processors flicker, an electronic fire seems to flare in the device’s iron belly. The brass mouse attached looks more like a 19th-century telegraph than a 21st-century doodad. The light that illuminates both devices emanates from a lamp of neon bulbs framed by horseshoe magnets wrapped in copper wire.

These are the brainchildren of Jake Hildebrandt, a 20-year-old Michigan Tech student. In total, the three devices – all unveiled this year – cost him $90 and 60 hours of labor. While Mr. Hildebrandt would seem to be part of a demographic that prefers hi-tech wizardry like the Wii or the iPhone, he opts instead for the retro comfort of the burgeoning aesthetic known as “steampunk” – a backlash not just to iGizmos, but also to the whole less-is-more design universe that includes recessed lighting, kitchen appliances camouflaged as cabinetry, cantilevered bathroom sinks with pipe-free underbellies, and discreet thermostat panels.

Mr. Hildebrandt loathes the awe given to 21st-century thingamabobs because, he says, “really it’s fear and stupidity. It’s the feeling of those apes in 2001 staring at that giant black monolith. When I’m with my steampunk stuff, I feel comfortable, like it’s real and it’s mine and I get it. It’s from a time before mass production, before industry kinda ruined things by handing us machines instead of helping us make them ourselves.” After a pensive pause, he says something that would make marketing hucksters shudder: “As much as I like my Telecalculograph, I would honestly like it a lot less if I just ordered it from Circuit City or Best Buy or whatever.”

Steampunk’s influences include the 1939 World’s Fair, Jules Verne novels, Flash Gordon comics, the Rube-Goldberg devices of “Wallace & Gromit,” and Jude Law in his role as Sky Captain in the World of Tomorrow. It can be seen in forms as structural as architect Tom Kundig’s Hot Rod House (an award-winning home in Seattle) or as ornamental as the maschinenleutchen lamps of German designer Frank Buchwald (elegant insectoid devices he has constructed since 2002). The scent of steampunk can even be found in the Modern Alchemy Candles by Douglas Little; one aroma combines the smells of wood, gunpowder and 19th-century lacquer.

The word “steampunk” offers a counterbalance to cyberpunk, which is highly futuristic. Steampunk is the future as dreamt by the past, and so is like a learned alternative to science fiction. While it can sometimes be fantastical, usually in the style of H.G. Wells’ novel “The Time Machine,” it often adopts a sense of realism. A device similar to Mr. Hildebrandt’s Telecalculograph, for example, might have sprung forth from the same labs that were inventing gramophones, cinescopes, galvanometers, flying machines and automobiles. Although technically steampunk has been around since the 1980s, it has flourished in recent years among those who jive with the excitement of the last turn of the century more than the current one. These are not Luddites, but rather ordinary folks nostalgic for a time before every machine was digitally muddled. It is the opposite of the iPhone aesthetic; instead of being sleek, subtle and vaguely magical, steampunk is clunky, candid and obliging. It blossoms fullest online in blogs or geek-chic hotspots like the websites Boing Boing and Digg or the magazines Make and Wired.

But steampunk isn’t just about being the neighborhood MacGyver. It involves a romance with the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Victorianism through Art Deco and Bauhaus – during that era’s rapid development of telecommunications, motor vehicles, and audiovisual technology. It was a time when electric contraptions moved beyond the factory and into the home, offering leisure and creature comforts. Such technological nostalgia is nothing too different than, for example, the way a cell phone camera will make a shutter-clicking sound. It is common in steampunk circles to say that the design is about “all of yesterday’s tomorrows.” 

“The reason we need steampunk is that everyone these days has the same stuff they’ve bought from Wal-Mart, Sears, Ikea, Target, Restoration Hardware, wherever,” says Sean Slattery, a 45-year-old IT manager and former auto parts builder who uses the pseudonym Jake von Slatt to run The Steampunk Workshop, the premier online hub for the community, from his home outside of Boston. “And, worse, there’s a sense that you can’t really customize all the technology that pervades our homes. Often, you can’t see the guts of it, let alone understand it. And if you try to open it and poke around, you void the warranty. Just helplessness.”

Sara Brumfield, a software designer in Austin, Tex., agrees. “The Victorian home was a haven away from all the industrial changes. So machines would be invited into your home instead of just invading your home,” she explains, before admitting, “Look, I work with software all day. So much of the technology we have is not perfect at all; it’s just good enough to work. So we should stop worshipping it.”

She keeps her home steampunk and heavy on antique styling. Her website, The Steampunk Home, recently gushed over the analog dials on Kenmore’s new PRO Series refrigerators.

Her living room features a chemical flask as a vase, a brass steamship clock (a wedding gift), a three-foot-tall 1930s-era radio she found at a garage sale, an ornate brass lamp with red glass she bought at a bazaar in Istanbul, thick red velvet curtains, dark wood flooring, a dulcimer handmade by her husband’s grandfather and distressed Victorian floorlamps with frosted bowls. For a few dollars a pound, she scrounged a salvage yard for a sack of gears that she is using to replace the knobs on her bedside tables. Her bed itself is lit with a brass swing-arm lamp she bought at a thrift store for $10. Her pride and joy is a self-made sun jar in her kitchen, a shredded $6 solar light she put in a frosted hermetic jar to use as a nightlight (it charges during the day and glows at night).

And there’s a more important reason Ms. Brumfield, 32, is a steampunk fan: her 2-year-old daughter, Josie. “I’m a geek. I’m a mechanic’s daughter,” says the mother. “But, if I want to raise a young engineer, how is she going to learn how things work if they’re all wrapped up in plastic casing?”

Steampunk also seems to be a natural extension of some homeowners’ newfound coexistence with a gritty industrial past, especially in the glut of factory-turned-loftspace homes popping up in renovated mill towns or industrial districts across the country. Working with that kind of space has been a recurring motif for interior designer Stacie Jane Meyer, 32, who trained in faux finishes and tromp l’oeil in Milwaukee (where she walked her dog on abandoned railroad tracks) before moving in 2001 to Los Angeles, where she helped design wall treatments last winter for the über-steampunk design of The Edison Bar. In February, The Edison Bar, a derelict power station that had been abandoned and flooded with eight feet of water, opened as a downtown boîte.

The Edison is divided into various steampunk enclaves: The Furnace, The Tesla Lounge, The Generator Lounge, The Lab, etc. Incandescent bulbs hang naked, as if lighting a mine shaft, and the distressed steel beams and walls are dotted with mysterious hatches and valves. The space is peppered with candlelight and tufted leather chairs of maroon and chocolate. The hulking, inert generator is massive.

“The whole steampunk thing is a deception, really, like any design is a deception,” she says. “You get to pretend for a bit that you’re in the 1920s or 1880s or whatever, and it can be so relaxing because, basically, you know how it turns out. So you’re free to just enjoy it and let loose.” The steampunk push, though, is not only the province of big ideas unique to big cities.

Roughly triangulated by the Dahlgren Weapons Laboratory, the Quantico Marine Corps Base, and the Fredericksburg National Military Park is 17-year-old Chris Boysha’s bedroom, in King George, Va., a mini-monument to steampunk. Mr. Boysha is a Boy Scout fluent in German, with a knack for abstract oil pastel painting, four guitars (including a ukulele and a cuatro), and an electronics empire – two desktops (one self-assembled), a laptop, two pocket PCs, a Wii, a desktop server and a 13-inch TV.
In March, Mr. Boysha discovered steampunk on the Wikipedia page for a “Doctor Who” episode and has spent his summer vacation turning his bedroom into what he calls his “steam room,” culling suggestions from Brass Goggles, a British steampunk website.

He aspires for his room to be “something between the Wanderer from Wild Wild West and Dorian Gray’s sitting room from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” with pipes and gauges and barometers on the wall, model engines lying around, and his chemistry set in prominent display. And, of course, some replica Georgian or Victorian furniture. It’s in his steam room where he will have space to build simple circuits and his big project: a tube radio.

During the summer transmogrification, the room’s walls were lined with leather wainscoting, a chair rail and a goldenrod fabric upper half; the air conditioning grate was replaced with one of brass lace; and the light switches were replaced with old-fashioned push-buttons. But the accessories were the key: a Galileo thermometer (where liquids at varying temperatures are suspended in a glass tube), a brass microscope, a touchtone candlestick phone, an 1890 Olivetti sidestrike typewriter, a brass gyroscope, swinging magnifying glasses on a stand, and an old accordion-style camera, for starters. His desk now has a cream-colored wingback chair with burgundy velour and his loft bed was replaced with a floor bed replete with plush burgundy and gold bedding. Most of the knickknacks were found in a catalog called American Science & Surplus, but also from Lowe’s and, ironically, the Internet. Total cost: $1,500.

“Steampunk for me is just being creative and realizing that the world – including the world of machines – is worth exploring and knowing about,” says Mr. Boysha. “It is whatever you want it to be, the way punk music or rock music is. It can be a lot of things.”

A generation of young people who share steampunk sensibilities has emerged in part thanks to Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway, who also captains an organization called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which runs national competitions – robotics, Lego toys – to connect kids with corporate leaders and get them (the kids) skilled and interested in science.
Visitors to Mr. Kamen’s 32,000-square-foot home in Bedford, N.H., known as Westwind (designed by Kamen himself, in 1997) are dwarfed by a 150-year-old, 25-ton, three-story-tall red Stirling engine once owned by Henry Ford. Mr. Kamen, 56, grabs a weighted flywheel on the engine and begins cranking it, churning a piston. Such hands-on contraptions and toys help to entertain guests at the parties he throws for upwards of 1,500 guests. And there is no shortage of such gadgets: an electronic version of a 17th-century chess-playing robot called The Turk, a working orrery, the 1906 hand-crank elevator from The Sting, a Chinese south-pointing chariot, pinball and billiards, a pulley system that links the kitchen with the bedroom, secret passageways, a cheese press, a genuine World War II flight simulator, a helicopter bay and a working 1913 Ford Model T (30 miles per gallon, by the way), to name a few. The basement foundry is for Mr. Kamen only.
Sprawled on a leather couch near the chess-playing robot, denim-clad with beer in hand, Mr. Kamen acknowledges that most people would feel uncomfortable in his home, as they would feel uncomfortable living in a Sharper Image store, forever fretting about breaking all these steampunk delicacies. “The best way not to get hurt by machines,” he explains, “isn’t to avoid them or cover every sharp corner. The best way is to understand them, to open and tinker and learn.” 
Then Mr. Kamen gushes about the safest, greatest, perhaps most-steampunk machine in the home – one the holder of 400-plus patents can't figure out a way to improve: the lowly toilet. “No electronics,” he says. “Just simple mechanics and a great user interface. But not just that. If you dump a lot of water into a toilet’s tank, it’ll know it should flush. It’ll fix itself. It’s an astounding machine, so much more mechanical complexity and intelligence than a computer, which is basically a well-trained monkey that does what it’s told.”
But what’s so steampunk about a toilet? There are no cool lights, no horseshoe magnets; heck, it’s porcelain, which is almost anti-metal. Mr. Kamen, the tinker king, smiles: “You know, a plumber will still fix your toilet even if you’ve dared to open the lid and jiggle the floating ball thing. So go ahead and jiggle it.”