Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Steampunk Architecture – Redux

Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.

Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.

So, what is Steampunk Architecture?

Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?

Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.

So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.

Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.

Continue reading

Halloween Steampunk DIY Costume Bits

Halloween is the holiday for Makers, as it gives us ample opportunities to express our creative side by making costumes decorations, and all the clever bits that go with them.

Over the years, I’ve blogged about a few Steampunk DIY projects that I’ve taken on. Here they are all in one place:

DIY Steampunk Medal

Steampunk Weekend DIY

DIY Steampunk Plasma Pistol

Quick DIY Plastic Steampunk Pistol Mod

DIY Steampunk Eyewear

Good luck with these suggestions. If you have any questions, ask away! There’s only a few more days until Halloween though, so get a move on. Or start planning (and Making) for next year.

Charles Darwin Considers Dragons

I am happy to offer the electronic version of my latest book, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, at 50% off ($1.75) during Smashwords‘ July Summer/Winter promotion until the end of July.

This book is the latest Airship Flamel Adventure featuring Professor Nicodemus Flamel, the main character in this series.

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How could it be that cultures all over the world–who had no prior contact with each other–have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up the famous naturalist’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

Enjoy!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Darwin’s Dragon — Now available!

190218_Dragon bookmark art

I am very pleased to announce that my latest novel in the Airship Flamel Adventures Series, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, is now available on Amazon for paperback and Kindle formats and on Smashwords for most other ebook formats.  Here’s the synopsis:

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How is it that cultures all over the world have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up Darwin’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

The book will be launched next weekend at Clockwork Alchemy, the San Francisco Bay Area’s steampunk con.  But that’s not all.  I also have written one of the eleven short stories published in an anthology titled, Next Stop on the #13, put together with many of the talented authors that you’ll be able to  meet at Clockwork Alchemy.

next_stop_on_13_front_cover

If you’re interested in Steampunk and in the Bay Area next weekend (March 22-24), I wholeheartedly recommend you attend and take part in the shenanigans.  I’ll be in the Author’s Alley section of the Artist’s Bazaar.  Come by and say Hi!

Also, come by and see me at the two panels I’ll be presenting.  On Saturday at 2:00 pm, I’ll be giving a talk on Steampunk Architecture, and on Sunday at noon, I will be presenting “How to Research” along with the master of alternative history, Harry Turtledove.  (I expect to learn more from him than I teach myself.)