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Steampunk: Where High Tech Meets Victorian Design

By Danny Davids(13,494) Danny Davids

Posted Thursday, November 15, 2007
View All Blog Posts submitted by Danny Davids

You've seen the movies.  You know, those old science-fiction ones set in the late 1800s or early 1900s, where the Industrial Revolution meets the Computer Revolution, and technology looks like something designed by Leonardo da Vinci or Jules Verne.  Without even knowing it, you've already seen steampunk.  (If you're too young to know what I'm talking about, fast forward to the movies "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "The Wild Wild West" for more contemporary examples.)

In some circles, the old-fashioned high-tech look is becoming new-tech high fashion.  People are reengineering their computers and laptops to look like something out of an H. G. Wells novel.  The sleek lines of a computer monitor might be replaced with brass bars and ivory knobs.  The keyboard could be junked in favor of an old manual typewriter.  Or a guitar might be opened up to reveal the gears and pulleys that power a device running on something other than electricity.  The devices work, although a little bit clumsily perhaps.  But that's the intrigue with steampunk.  How can I take my new device and make it look old, yet still let it function the way it's supposed to?

How did all this start?  Well, for years science fiction authors have tried to predict what the future will be like.  We get flying cars and transporters and faster-than-light travel and clean, inexpensive, unlimited power.  Some writers decided to speculate on how the future could have been if things had been different in the past.  Many went to da Vinci's design concepts of aircraft and warcraft.  Assuming that his designs worked and were accepted, they invented worlds where manned flight occurred 300 years earlier than the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.  Of course, these worlds would have no knowledge of oil or electricity or nuclear power.  So their technology would have been powered by what was popular at the time - steam.

The literary genre gained immense popularity in the 1990s, when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote "The Difference Engine."  It takes place in an alternate Victorian Britain, where real-life inventor Charles Babbage has succeeded in building a computer programmable by punch cards.  As a result, the information age arrives 100 years early, steam-powered just like the Industrial Revolution.  And I remember playing a computer game called "1889" (or some year very close to it), where you assumed the role of a Victorian aristocrat, compiling a group of adventurers to build a dirigible you could use to tour the inner Solar System (using Jules Verne's assumptions that outer space was full of "ether", the Moon and the planets were inhabited by strange beings, and travel between the planets was easy and swift).  It was really cool.

With the popularity of the literature style, the next logical extension was creating technology that had the look-and-feel of the Victorian-era tech.  And the creative juices started flowing in real life.  For instance, Richard Nagy took his HP laptop and encased it in mahogany-stained pine.  Leather wrist rests are tacked beneath its copper keys.  The whole contraption sits on brass claw feet, and the lid is decorated with clockwork gears displayed under glass (not acrylic), making it resemble a music box.  To boot the laptop, Nagy has to crank an antique clock-winding key.  And yes, it works.

What's the draw in rebuilding a computer that would seem to be more difficult to run than the original design?  Some believe it's an acceptance of the values of the era, when things were more personal, less cold, beautiful to look at (if somewhat cumbersome), and durable.  It's certainly spawned its own cottage industry, with steampunk magazines, blogs, fashion, and a Web site that sells salvaged building parts to inventors ready to build their next throwback item.

Hmmm--I wonder what a Victorian iPod would look like?

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Posted to ProBlogs.com on Thursday, November 15, 2007
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