Saturday, 07 July 2012 02:00

Steampunk - Re-Inventing the Victorian Era

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

The Clacker by DatamancerThe antiques business has seen a lot of change and a significant downturn in the last few years but when asked what is selling these days, most dealers will tell you “People buy what they can use”. That means a lot of things that used to be very popular in antiques stores are now unwanted; silverware that isn’t dishwasher safe and has to be polished, old luggage that is heavy and doesn’t even have wheels, clocks and watches that have to be wound up and fussed over. They’ve all been replaced by more convenient versions of the same thing and only the most avid, nostalgic collector would bother to use them.

A lot of these things though are now being re-purposed or made into something else. This trend has a ring of depression-era efficiency about it, a creative way to keep things nobody wants out of the landfill.

Silver plate flatware makes nice jewellery, people cut the handles off old spoons and fashion them into rings or bracelets, and they even use the tines of forks in creative ways to hold stones. Many people buy old postcards and photographs to use in artwork or to decorate lampshades.

In our store we’ve sold old steamer trunks, wash stands and even an old chicken coop to people who use them to make something useful, such as a coffee table. We have one camera collector who buys high quality lenses made for vintage film cameras and re-fits them so they can be used on digital SLR cameras. His customers get the quality of an old lens (they are better) and the convenience of digital.

Most importantly, old wind-up clocks, watches, in fact many old mechanical devices that no longer work are put to fantastic use by members of a world-wide movement called steampunk. You may have heard the term, it’s not new; there was even a Steampunk Festival in Coldwater last year that included art shows, music and people riding around on penny-farthing bicycles. It was very successful so another one is planned for August 11 this year.

Steampunk adherents are fascinated with the Victorian era and its machines, especially the steam-powered ones. They dress in period costumes (corsets are big), build machines, watch movies, read books and re-create an altered view of the Victorian era obsessively. They are not interested in historical accuracy; they create fantasy worlds that assume Victorian fashion never went away and all machines are powered by steam or clockwork instead of electricity.

Steampunk started as a literary genre in the 1980s; many historians cite Morlock Night, written by K.W. Jeter in 1979, as being the first steampunk novel. It was Jeter who coined the phrase to describe a group of writers. The word is derived from cyberpunk, a genre of science fiction pioneered by Vancouver writer William Gibson. The steam part comes from their reverence for steam engines, the punk part means they consider themselves to be on the fringe of society. At its core, all steampunk literature is based on the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; it’s always set roughly in the Victorian era (either in Britain or the American west), always involves a lot of insanely complicated, fantastical machines which brazenly ignore the laws of physics and always gives us a “what if” view of history.

Gibson himself contributed a steampunk classic in 1990. Co-written with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine speculates what might have happened if Charles Babbage, a real person who drew plans for a mechanical computer around 1824 but never built one, had actually built his machine and it worked, kicking off the information age ahead of schedule.

In Gibson’s novel, Babbage becomes one of the most powerful men in Britain, the anti-technology Luddites are ruthlessly defeated, Britain rules the world with steam-powered flying machines, aligns itself with Japan and makes sure the colonies in America are not united and pose no threat.

With the success of the novels, it was only natural that steampunk movies would follow. There aren’t that many yet so some older movies such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1975) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1967) have been retroactively brought in to the steampunk catalogue. The current movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer is a steampunk favourite. According to the Steampunk Canada web site, they gather in groups to see the movie while in costume, then meet at a bar afterwards for a discussion. A fun time was had by all.

It’s in the area of art and re-purposing antiques that steampunk really shines. High-end steampunk art consisting of massive, working, steam-powered machines inspired by the Nautilus in Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea started to appear about a dozen years ago. In 2009 the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England hosted the first major exhibition of steampunk art. There were fantastical and practical devices by 18 artists from around the world. It turned out to be the most successful and well-attended exhibit in the museum’s history.

Today steampunk art is a cottage industry; hobbyists all over the world are re-fashioning modern technology to look like it was made 150 years ago.

Some creations are fantasy items that could not possibly work, such as wind-up headphones or steam-powered toilets and even prosthetic arms. The very best though are useful objects that blur the line between tool and decoration.

85 content steampunk laptopComputers are a favourite subject. A steampunk artist will take the guts of a working computer, put them in a custom-made wooden case with brass and leather accents, fashion a keyboard from old typewriter keys, maybe add a few old gauges and decorate it with gears taken from old clocks. The results can be quite stunning, and functional to boot. Other working (but highly decorated) devices include electric guitars, iPod holders, USB memory sticks and, of course, clocks.

In 2011 writer and steampunk artist James Floyd Kelly released the book Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos in which he explains, in very exacting detail, how to make all of the above. Now more than ever, people are searching for the raw materials to make their own, unique creations.

Does this mean that your old, rusty clocks and bits of metal are suddenly worth a fortune? Of course not, the whole idea of steampunk is to use things that can be bought cheaply. It does mean that all this old, broken down mechanical stuff is probably useful to somebody and should not be thrown away.

Steampunk has been compared to the Arts and Crafts Movement of a hundred years ago. It is essentially a rejection of modern industrial design, which is supposed to optimize function, sometimes at the expense of aesthetics. There are those who say it has already peaked but those comments usually come from people who are involved in other cult movements and may be a bit miffed that steampunk adherents are taking over their gatherings.

Steampunk is a wonderful, fascinating, creative world and at the very least it is helping to keep old stuff out of our landfill sites.