The All-in-One Victorian PC is the perfect little black dress of computer modifications. It’s classic and timeless, but has a modern edge that makes it impossible to escape wolf whistles and elevator eyes. Like any good designer, Jake von Slatt knew he had to start with strong raw material. He purchased a 24-inch flat-panel Soyo monitor from OfficeMax for $299, and fabricated a shell to hide the rest of the computer — including a Pentium IV motherboard, disk drives, and a 350-watt PSU — behind and inside of it. Most DIY-ers, even some hardcore tech-geeks, would have stopped there, but von Slatt had barely begun.
He poked around his town dump until he found a knick-knack rack that reminded him of a Victorian-era stage set. Framing the monitor with the rack lent it the air of an antique pixel picture frame. Then, he added aluminum and pop rivets, followed by two long pieces of angle iron as “curtains,” to give the monitor-stage a trompe l’oeil effect. Gold-painted flower scrollwork arches across the top like a crown, and tiny brass feet — miniaturized versions of the ones you’d see on a vintage bathtub — prop the utilitarian objet d’art a few centimeters off the table. A tightly coiled wire leads to an elegant, fully functional keyboard, the keys of which have been taken from a 1955 Royal Portable typewriter. The completed PC is a sexy, ebony-lacquered beauty trimmed in high-polished brass accents. Von Slatt, who is wearing a bowling shirt and a formal top hat, watches me admire his work with an affable smile. He looks, for all the world, like a man caught between two centuries. For that matter, so does his computer.
Up close, the PC is a tactile wonder, far more extravagant than the pictures I and thousands of others — it had been featured on Boing Boing, Engadget, and digg.com — had gawked at online. I’m itching to press the typewriter keys and, when von Slatt unleashes the DVD drive with a ping and a flourish, I’m tormented that I don’t have the luxury of loading in a movie, say, The Wizard of Oz, so that I can steer this gothic tech-fantasy to a whole other place. But there’s so much else to stare at in von Slatt’s Littleton, Massachusetts, Steampunk Workshop — itself a big, pleasant jumble of anachronisms — that it becomes difficult to focus on any one thing.
Von Slatt (a pseudonym) recently blogged about his PC on the Web version of his Workshop (steampunkworkshop.com), detailing the process of its construction and the unique modifications he’d included. Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising that he has been lauded as a kind of tinkerer visionary, a man with the mechanical prowess (he’s an IT professional by day) and artistic skills to solder technology with craftsmanship and form a new artisanal DIY movement.
But his is only one piece of a larger, nascent subculture called Steampunk. Its basic origins are in a particular sect of science fiction — novels that include Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaire and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, sci-fi romances that pit retro-futuristic, steam-powered machines against stylized Victorian backdrops. Verne and Wells weren’t writing about Steampunk, though — they were writing about their immediate present and prophesizing about what might happen if technology continued in the curious direction it had taken. “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes,” Verne wrote in Journey to the Center of the Earth, “but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”
THE VISIONARY TINKERER: With help from OfficeMax and his local town dump, Jake von Slatt turned his 21st-century PC into a Steampunk marvel.
A past that never was
These retro-future adventure themes popped up again and again as the 20th century wore on, particularly in the genre of 1970s Cyberpunk fiction, which depicts nihilistic, high-tech outlaws on the edge of society. Author K.W. Jeter coined the term Steampunk in a 1987 letter to Locus, a sci-fi magazine. “Personally,” wrote Jeter, “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing. . . . Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.”
It wasn’t until 1990, when well-respected Cyberpunk scribes William Gibson and Bruce Sterling teamed up to write The Difference Engine (Gollancz), that Steampunk was properly introduced and brought to the forefront, legitimized as a literary movement all its own that would eventually grow into something much larger. In The Difference Engine, Charles Babbage has invented the computer (a/k/a the “analytical engine”) too early. Technically skilled “clackers” (Victorian-era hackers) program the engines with punch cards, and the suppressed revolutionaries are the Luddite anti-industrial working class. Here, the Information Age collides with the Steam Age to create something equal parts frightening and glorious, and it’s within these paradoxes and purposeful anachronisms that Steampunk lives and breathes.