What Steampunk means to me

I’m not interested in trying to define steampunk. Any number of articles and blog posts have been written on the general topic of “What is Steampunk?”  While there’s a certain usefulness in that endeavour (Steampunk isn’t “anything you want”.), I’m happy to believe that steampunk can encompass, or at least cast its brass begoggled gaze over, an astonishingly broad swath of our sci-fi/fantasy microcosm.

Also,  who am I to tell my fellow foot soldiers in Her Majesty’s Legions that their magic-infused automatons are any more or less valid than my British professor travelling the world on a Voyage of Discovery in his plasma-powered airship?

I would, however, like to describe what Steampunk has come to mean to me—my own personal, subjective opinion.

I’ve been interested in Victorian design for some time. I live in a 1880s Victorian house. I also have a deep fascination with Victorian Era technology, which is simple and visible enough to understand its function— the clicks of a telegraph key or the swoosh of a steam piston—yet powerful enough to build an Empire. Industrial Revolution practicality combined with completely superfluous decoration embody the two precepts of William Morris’s adage, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

1280px-The_Octagon,_Crossness_Pumping_Station

There’s no functional need for a sewage pumping station to be so ornately decorated, but why not? Crossness Pumping Station, downriver from London. Source: Steve Cadman, flickr.com

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about this thing called steampunk.  It was likely sometime between a visit to Maker Faire and seeing my neighbors preparing for Burning Man. At Maker Faire I saw the League of S.T.E.A.M., a performance group of steampunk ghostbusters,  as well as the group Obtainium Works, then known mostly for the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled Victorian house.

Seeing these groups and their fantastic self-made outfits and props was truly inspiring, especially considering my science background and interest in the history of the Victorian Era.  Who knew that there were others with the same combination of interests as me? And that they could build a functioning (well, mostly functioning) zombie immobilization engine?

Maker Faire became an annual event for our family, and we met many more amazing Steampunks wandering around the Faire.  My sons wanted to make their own steampunk outfits one year and were searching for accessories to combine with pieces borrowed from the neighbors’ costuming box. I modded a neon-colored water pistol from the dollar store into a reasonably respectable plasma pistol for one of them to carry around.  It was my gateway project that urged me further down the rabbit hole that is Steampunk. (My next pistol was built around a small plasma globe that I first saw as part of a steampunked electric guitar.)

before

Water pistol before…

after

Modded water pistol

Maker Faire (RIP) led to Nova Albion (RIP) which led to Clockwork Alchemy, the Bay Area’s steampunk con, and the Dickens’ Fair, a celebration of Dickensian Christmas which also attracts many steampunk fellow travelers.

pistol_on

“McCaig’s Folly” A plasma pistol based on a plasma ball.

So, what does steampunk mean to me? Steampunk is joyful and collaborative.  It is the opposite of cynical and sarcastic.  But witty though, it’s definitely witty.  Steampunk is good-natured and and good-humoured.  (Yes, I added a British “u” there, because it’s fun!  Brits, you can omit your superfluous “u” if you want to explore Wild Weird West-style Steampunk.)

I delight in the Steampunk Aesthetic, in all its brass cogs, steam engines, airships, top hats and corsets. Self-made props and gadgets, some of which truly rise to the level of Art, astound me with their cleverness and sense of humor. Just as important is the generosity and sense of camaraderie amongst steampunks. I have found us to be always quick to help out with friendly and helpful advice on techniques and resources for the often arcane materials we might need to get that appearance just right. This sense of fellowship continues for my author comrades, the Treehouse Writers, at Clockwork Alchemy.  They helped me get started writing with encouragement and suggestions when all I had was a first chapter, and misty visions. Now, three books and several short stories later, I know I can always rely upon them for advice and support.

And just last week, upon the cancellation of Clockwork Alchemy 2020 because of the pandemic, the volunteer organizers mounted a replacement concert, completely on-line with the artists that were to attend the con streaming their performances from bedrooms and basements to fellow steampunks around the world.

I have no doubt that the Steampunk Spirit will prevail and I’ll be attending Clockwork Alchemy again next March.

Be Splendid.

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST Robotics goes Steampunk!

FIRST Robotics is a program for high-schoolers that teaches invention, design, and teamwork through the process of designing and building a robot to accomplish several tasks during competition.  Although most of the teams are in the US, teams in over 25 countries worldwide take part in the program.

Each year the competition has a different theme, and the tasks change.  For example, in past years, robots had to be designed to shoot basketballs, throw frisbees, and climb a tower.  The competition is announced in early January and teams have approximately six weeks to design, build, and troubleshoot their robots before competition.  My sons participated in their high school’s team and count their robotics experience as one of the best parts of high school, and their teammates as among their closest friends.

So, we were especially excited to discover that the theme for the FIRST Robotics Competition this year is Steampunk! And the game was introduced by none other than  Professor Elemental, steampunk and chap hop musician extraordinaire.  The good professor even wrote a song specially for the competition:

 

If you’re interested in learning more about this year’s competition (narrated by Professor E.), you can see an animation here that outlines the rules and scoring opportunities:

as well as an even longer description featuring more steampunk antics here:

I think this year’s competition looks to be the most interesting and entertaining to watch in years (and that’s topping last year’s Storming the Castle theme!).  And it’s a great introduction to steampunk for all the students taking part in FIRST.

DIY Steampunk Medal

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A steampunk outfit is really made by its accessories.  They at once evoke the Victorian era that typifies the time frame of much of Steampunk culture, as well as adding bits of interest to your outfit.  And no matter what manner of steampunk outfit you wear, you can always think up a reason why your character has been awarded a medal.

I’ve got a few medals that I’ve bought over time.  My airship wings are one of my favorites, as is the George V cap badge from the Royal Engineers that I turned into a pin.  (I know, not strictly Steampunk era, but close!)  But I wanted something unique. Continue reading

Halloween: The Holiday for Makers

Almost a decade ago now, my block decided to go all out for Halloween and to decorate to the max for the Trick or Treaters. And it has worked–we typically get 400-500 kids come by. It was also the beginning of my now yearly October making spree.

The first year, we decorated as mad scientists–not a big stretch since my wife and I are both chemists, and let’s just say I had a lot of labware hanging around.  A large glass beaker of rats spinning around, a jello brain, and some black lights to make the flasks of potions glow were all it took. Oh, and I was dressed up in lab coat and crazy mad scientist hair.

The next few years we modified the mad scientist theme into “Alien Autopsy”.  Continue reading

Quick DIY Plastic Steampunk Pistol Mod

Yikes!  Halloween is less than three weeks away and I haven’t even started on my steampunk costume yet.

If this is you, fear not.  It’s not impossible to make a passable steampunk pistol prop in only a couple of days.  A few years ago, my son wanted to dress steampunk for Maker Faire.  We put together a reasonable outfit (He already owned goggles…), but he wanted a pistol to top it off, and Maker Faire was only a few days away.

Fortunately, I had found this water pistol recently at a dollar store.

Water pistol before...

Water pistol before…

I know.  I’m sorry–the colors are not so tear-inducing in real life, but close. I will show you how to change this garish monstrosity into a steampunk pistol.  If you look past the eye-throbbing colors, you can see that this pistol actually has pretty good details molded into it–a water tank (the large red bit), fins, a smaller tank, tubing, rivets, etc.  So, I lucked out and found one that was easily adaptable to begin with. If you’ve got the time, look around at dollar stores, thrift shops, flea markets, second-rate toy stores, etc., for a pistol you can imagine as steampunk–with a little work.  If not, just about anything can be  made to look steampunk–or at least, more steampunk–with judicious application of paint. Continue reading

DIY Steampunk Eyewear

Steampunk culture is very closely aligned to the Maker and DIY Movements.  Because let’s face it:  we’re recreating a past that never existed. We have to make our own artifacts.  More importantly, steampunks love to talk about their creations and I’ve found them almost universally very generous in giving advise and help to newcomers trying to make their own steampunk gear.

In that spirit, let me share two of my early steampunk creations which happen to both be eyewear–a tricked out pair of  jeweler’s loupes and a pair of goggles. Continue reading