Steampunk's Twist on Tech

If you've ever owned a laptop for more than a couple of years, you've probably marveled at how ancient and clunky it looks next to the latest models. That once-sleek Dell Latitude LM, boasting a Pentium processor, is the size of a VCR, feels as if it weighs 20 pounds and seems about as cutting edge as a Betamax. But its antiquated feel has got nothing on Richard Nagy's Hewlett Packard.

Nagy's laptop is encased in mahogany-stained pine, with leather wrist rests tacked beneath its copper keys, and sits on whimsical brass claw feet. Its lid is decorated with an elaborate display of interlocking clockwork gears under glass, making it resemble a music box. Oh, and you boot the thing up by cranking an antique clock-winding key. It looks as if it was beamed here from some alternate Victorian past, one where computers were as commonplace as monocles and side whiskers. And that's precisely the point: Nagy's laptop is a prime example of the growing do-it-yourself garage-hacker aesthetic known as "steampunk."

The steampunk subculture is hard at work producing intricate handcrafted modifications of technologies that permeate our daily lives—largely stripping them of convenience and portability but imbuing them with antique charm in the process. "It really seems to be building some momentum," says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author who frequently links to standout steampunk examples on BoingBoing, the tech-culture blog he co-edits. "We get more of this stuff than we can post." There's a steampunk magazine, steampunk blogs, steampunk fashion (think punk-meets-goth-meets-dirigible-pilot), and even a steampunk Web site that specializes in selling salvaged building parts to aspiring inventors.

Recasting a laptop as a steampunk masterpiece doesn't take a whole lot of money ($20 should get you a couple of pounds of vintage scrap metal), but it does take massive man-hours in research and welding. A small price as far as the converted are concerned. "Steampunk uses the past to reflect on the present, much as science fiction uses the future," says Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at MIT. "It has become a culture of tinkerers that sees modern technology as escaping our control; it's too virtual, not touching human experience in a visceral way."

This is the underlying philosophy of the steampunk look: the embrace of an era when technology was open-source, more personal, less cold and simply beautiful (even if occasionally clunky). That bygone era also placed a high value on permanence and durability. Unlike your new iPod, which is probably not your first iPod, things back then were made to last. Nagy, who works under the name Datamancer, is one of the first to try to make a living at it. He's putting two of his latest modified computer keyboards—a gorgeous copper device with engraved lettering called the "Baron of Cyprus," and a grungy aluminum number called "the Industrial" that looks as if it was swiped from the set of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil"—up for sale this week on eBay, where he is "cautiously optimistic" they'll fetch more than $2,000 each. His own desktop computer is housed in the cabinet of a 1920s tube radio and has an Underwood typewriter for its keyboard. "It's about the mixture of form and function," he explains. "It seems like the Victorian age emphasized the two so beautifully, whereas our more modern technology balances function over form."

Over at Steampunk Workshop, Jake von Slatt (né Sean Slattery) steampunk'd his Dell 1907FP flat-panel monitor with gaslamp arms, a brass-colored aluminum frame, and chime levers from a grandfather clock to create a machine that looks like something Jules Verne himself might have used to type out a masterpiece. "My ultimate goal is to be able to produce any bit of 19th-century technology myself," says Slattery. "There's a huge satisfaction in taking a piece of junk or hunk of metal and turning it into something people think is really cool." He has also outfitted (one almost wants to say "retrofitted") a Fender Stratocaster guitar, making it appear that the pick guard has been peeled away to reveal the guts—all clockwork gears. His next big project: a steampunk car.

The roots of the current steampunk boom lie in a literary subgenre that peaked in popularity in the early 1990s and owes a direct debt to the work of 19th-century writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Both men wrote fantasies that featured fictional state-of-the-art technology powered by nothing fancier than steam and propelled by elaborate systems of switches, levers and gears (see: "Around the World in Eighty Days" and "The Time Machine," respectively). But their versions of tech weren't determinedly anachronistic, like those of later works: Michael Moorcock's "The Warlord of the Air" (1971) and James P. Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine" (1992). "The Difference Engine," a 1990 novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, takes place in an alternate Victorian Britain, one in which the real-life inventor Charles Babbage has succeeded in his astonishing dream of building a computer programmable by punch cards. In their wickedly fun book, the information age arrives 100 years early, steam-powered right along with the Industrial Revolution.

But now—thanks to Nagy, Slattery and their DIY ilk—this high-tech Victorian aesthetic has leapt from the page into reality, like the golem of some long-dead mad scientist. "I'm kind of touched to see these guys becoming pop stars," says Sterling, "The Difference Engine" co-author. "To me it's a sign of social health. People can look on the legacy of the past and grab it and use it. It's an industrial cut-and-paste aesthetic. And I think that the 20th century's love for 19th-century technology is going to be matched by the 21st century's love of corny 20th-century technology. We're going to see Atompunk." Somehow, though, the idea of a lovingly modified MP3 player made to look like an eight-track player just doesn't have the same appeal.