Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Some thoughts about Steampunk

As I dig more and more into Brass and Steel: Inferno (or whatever it finally winds up being called,) I'm forced to try to really understand the Steampunk esthetic in a way I can articulate it. While by no means does the esthetic define the movement, it does give an insight into what steampunk is and how steampunkers (steampunks?) think.

75 years ago, the hot trend was to streamline everything. Hide all the fussy mechanical bits under a smooth, sleek exterior. Sure, it made those machines (e.g. steam locomotives) a monstrous pain in the rear to service, but they certainly looked cool, at least to the esthetic of the day.

Radio underwent this transformation as well, from the Atwater Kent breadboards of the 20s, where they went out of their way not only to leave the guts of the radio out where you could see them, but also made those guts /pretty/. An Atwater Kent breadboard is a radio for the steampunk esthetic. these were finished radios, as you'd take home and use. By 1926, however, the tubes all went inside a wooden box or a metal can,like this and by 1929, they needed to, since your radio was now plugged into the wall and had voltage and current enough to kill you.

Fast forward to the computer revolution. If you were around at the beginning of the personal computer revolution, as friend Jeff was, your first computer might have been a Cosmac Elf, IMSAI or Altair, or perhaps an Apple I. These machines came as kits. You knew how they worked, because you put them together yourself, and you put them in a case for one specific reason: to keep dust, RF interference, and the cat out of them. Nowadays, they look like this or this.

Steampunk inverts this trend. More than that. Steampunk says this trend is a lie, and that it's used to cheat you by hiding an inferior machine inside, or worse, that the machine is up to something and you don't know what that is.. Steampunk embraces mechanical complexity that isn't afraid to show off its construction. Steampunk is about the construction. It's about the complexity. It's about being honest and showing you how things work, even if they don't do anything especially useful. To whit, this art 'bot, archived at Make Magazine. Watch the video. It's worth it. Steampunk, at its best, is about that kind of mechanical grace, where your eye can take the object apart at the same time as watching the whole thing move.

At least, that's my take on it.

It could just be about cool hats. :)


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