What the hell is steampunk, you ask?
Over the past few months, I’ve been asked that same question many times. In February, I wrote a story about this group of costumed folks — steampunks — who went to ride the carousel at the Westfield Mall in Carlsbad but were kicked out by management. A small story about the incident I wrote for the Reader turned out to be the shot heard ’round the world. As in going viral. As in blew up on the blogosphere. As in so popular that ABC news felt it important enough to do a segment on them here in San Diego and in Los Angeles. U-T San Diego did a story about it. Steampunk musician Poplock Holmes wrote and recorded a song called “Carousel” about the incident. “Steampunk,” Holmes says, “celebrates the difference, instead of segregating.”
To answer your question, steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction and fantasy that has its roots in a post-apocalyptic view of the 19th century (hence the steam). It includes social and technological aspects of the Victorian period expressed in dress and in the making of retro-futuristic accoutrements. That’s a good working definition. But the true answer to your question lies in getting to know a few participants — a few steampunks.
When I met retired safety engineer (now self-titled “director of creative madness”) and Rancho Bernardo resident Bob Mogg, who is in his mid 50s, he wore what looked like a mechanical arm. Fascinated, I asked him how he made it. “I saw an old-style drafting lamp. Long bones, already connected to an elbow, lightweight, and I thought I had one up in the attic. I pulled off the actual lamp and removed the wires, and I had a perfectly sized arm that would ride on top of my own arm. The springs that balanced it added a great aesthetic. I raided my belt rack and started putting together the support structure. Four U-shaped brackets with leather belts connected to them. This puts smooth leather against your arm and not sharp metal. The belts don’t have to be too tight, as the arm re-centers itself every time you flex your arm. A couple of motor armatures from old drills, nice copper windings, interesting shafts, those can go here and here. Pressure gauge from the plumbing tools, braided steel hoses, and a variety of black rubber hoses. I used a few brass valves left over from an old aquarium and framed the arm with the steel hose. A brass garden-hose nozzle looked great at the end of the hose. Two female fittings got spliced with a piece of sprinkler fitting. A few hose clamps to pull everything together, and a large clock mechanism at the shoulder, just because. A fitting here, another gauge there — how about a retractable keychain cutting across the angle that moves when the arm moves and makes a great ratcheting sound? No painting, very little metalwork, only a little leather work on the belts, and the whole thing put together for under $10 and only weighs about ten pounds.”
Makers such as Mogg are part of a contemporary subculture of the technology-based do-it-yourself culture. This can involve electronics, robotics, and traditional metalworking, woodworking, and arts-and-crafts.
I met Bob at Condor, a science fiction/fantasy convention held at the Town and Country hotel here in March. I was there to observe an award ceremony for steampunk makers. Bob was among the recipients.
In May, I attended the Gaslight Gathering Convention at the same hotel; this event was devoted exclusively to steampunk. There I met with makers Adam Green and Dan Benedict.
Green is a 30-year-old engineer who lives in Oceanside. I observed him at the Lapidary, a place in San Diego where many of the steampunks go to make the pieces they wear. He was busy building a pair of “Hulk-fist-inspired” square-looking boxing gloves out of wood that lit up with LED lights and made loud noises. CO2 devices taken from paintball guns make the noises and are hidden inside the gloves. They feature four feet of braided-steel tubes with a quick disconnect. In honor of a friend who had passed away, he called the gloves “a Ronald Erickson Assisted Pugilism Device, and these are all random junk parts.” Adam figures he spent about $300–400 making them.
Benedict, also in his 30s, is an industrial designer living in Anaheim and owns Derby Kinetic. He was guest of honor at the Gaslight Gathering this year. He makes large pieces such as coffins that have eye-like apertures on the side that open and close electronically and large metal-looking industrial drums that shoot out steam. Benedict says, “They are made to look as if they’re over 100 years old but are made with plastic and are very lightweight, considering their hefty-looking deceptiveness.... San Diego steampunks were the first to recognize my works as a kinetic artist and adopt me into their ranks and invite me to share my works at their events.”
Lithobius Quick (real name: Kim Hutsell) is a gentleman in his early 60s and the founder of a maker group of about 30 people called the Starburner Galactic Courier Service. Back in 2008 at Comic-Con, the doors to the magic castle opened to him. He wanted to recognize all the makers, writers, artists, actors, organizers, and events people. He wanted to award them in front of their peers. He handed out six medals at that first Starburner awards ceremony.
As a child, Hutsell was encouraged to go play in the family woodshop in his basement. “I was a 12-year-old kid working with bandsaws and lathes. My dad was a tinker, too. It was second nature.” Hustell also runs the San Diego Lapidary Society, where others come to polish stones for jewelry, and where fellow steampunk Michelle Peoples, also known as Stitch Trickery, teaches sewing classes. The one class I observed was learning how to make corsets and waist-cinchers.
As I talked to Hutsell at the Lapidary, I watched him put together what looked like a vintage wooden personal grooming kit. He said it was called “campaign furniture” that military officers used. It was a wood box about two feet tall and about one and a half feet deep. It opened up and had a pewter bowl sitting flush in a hole Hutsell had made and could be removed. There was a brass towel rack attached, a copper cup to heat up water from a transportable heater taken from a Coleman lantern, soap container, shaving mug and badger-hair brush, vintage razor, bone hair comb, toothbrush, mustache comb, glass tube “humidor” for a morning cigar, vanity mirror, and green felt on all the bottom surfaces. He had given it a personal touch with a small picture of a Victorian woman. He said it was all built to 1860 standards and it was the heater that made it steampunk because they would not have had that back then. This was on display in the maker room at the Gaslight Gathering.