Meet the Steampunks

24th May 2009 | 09:00

Meet the Steampunks

Fancy owning a PC infused with the unique design ethos of an imaginary high-tech Victorian age?

Australian Steampunk engineer Cliff Overton

Picture a world where the family PC sports brass pressure gauges to indicate CPU speed and temperature, where LCD displays resemble intricate dressing-table mirrors and where electricity hasn't yet replaced steam as the workhorse of industry.

Welcome to the world of Steampunk – a curiously high-tech mix of Jules Verne and Silicon Valley. Steampunk style encompasses fashion, art, music and literature.

The concept involves redesigning items of modern consumer technology to make them look as if they had been built 150 years ago using the materials of the time: brass, copper, steam and cogs.

In short, this is how the modern PC might have looked if it had been invented by Isambard Kingdom Brunel rather than IBM.

Turning junk into jewels

"It began as a rough idea for a computer that looked like some sort of old mechanical apparatus in a workshop," says Australian Steampunk engineer Cliff Overton of the case design he calls the Communicator.

"I thought that a central hub or spine could carry all the cables and that each component could branch off the spine," he recalls. "I guess it's sort of inspired by those old scary dentists' machines that looked like robots with long spindly arms."

Overton's Antipodean Steampunk Adventures blog documents the whole process of creating this unique PC. Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about this radical redesign is that it's highly functional as well as being distinctive and decorative.

Plugs and sockets usually hidden around the back of the case – or otherwise out of sight – are on full display and easily accessible. Remarkably, the case's design evolved according to the availability of items that fitted into Overton's initial theme for the modification.

"I wanted to build something industrial," says Overton. "It would look more at home on a workshop bench with tools scattered around it rather than on a desk. Once I had the theme in my head, it was a case of looking for old parts to put together. I already had a plough disc, so that became the circular base plate. The jackhammer was the real catalyst – I saw it in a wrecker's yard and I knew that I'd found the core of the machine. From then on, the design evolved as I experimented with parts."

While the parts Overton had gathered gave the machine a rough shape, the design still needed a lot of imagination to complete. He used his initiative to find things that fit his concept. "The IDE drive enclosure uses old pressure gauges, plumbing parts and an old bronze mesh strainer from the end of a suction hose," he says.

"The motherboard enclosure uses two pizza trays joined with threaded rod. The four-port USB module was a case of 'the one in the shop uses a cylinder the same size as that bit of brass pipe', so I transferred the components over."

HIDDEN DRIVE: What looks like a pressure gauge on the Communicator actually houses a hard disk

The idea of reusing old junk items to house modern PC components is widespread in Steampunk culture. "A build from scratch that uses off-the-shelf components that are fitted into unusual objects can be great fun," enthuses Overton. "I see a lot of potential enclosures around all the time. For instance, how about using an old upright gramophone case with a screen inside that pops up when you lift the lid?"

But while Overton is happy to use contemporary objects in his designs, other Steampunk enthusiasts have gone even further, sometimes incorporating genuine antiques into their works.

Steampunk stalwart Jake Von Slatt

The antique collector

"I sometimes get some flack from folks for 'destroying' irreplaceable antiques," says Steampunk stalwart Jake Von Slatt. "To this I say antiques have value for two main reasons: they give us a connection to the culture that created them, and they have monetary value in the marketplace. There's no doubt that singular handcrafted works of artists and craftsmen demand preservation, because they give us unique information about past cultures. However, since vintage mass-manufactured goods hold little unique cultural information, they have value only in the marketplace."

Von Slatt is a leading light in the Steampunk movement. His creations have graced plenty of publications over the past few years, from Wired to the Financial Times. However, Von Slatt didn't realise that he was considered a Steampunk icon until he found out what the term meant.

REAR VIEW: The back of Von Slatt's Victorian PC is as decorative as the front and includes a brass fan

"I think, like a lot of people, I didn't get into Steampunk," he says. "I just discovered that there was a name for something I've always been passionate about. The elements that feed into this passion are a long-term interest in technology in general, particularly the history of technology and the Industrial Revolution, combined with a love of science fiction and a personal desire – a need – to make stuff with my hands."

One of Von Slatt's Steampunk creations is his Victorian All-in-One PC, which wouldn't look out of place on a nineteenth-century gentleman scientist's writing desk. The project started when Von Slatt spotted a 24in widescreen monitor for just $299.

After cutting the case down to size, he then attached a sturdy aluminium plate to it and fixed a Pentium IV motherboard, a 350-Watt power supply, a DVD player and a 250GB SATA disk drive onto that. The polished black base on which the entire PC stands began life as an old ornament display stand and came from the town dump.

The rest of the stand became the frame for the screen. To this he added a lattice of brass sidepieces, as you'll find detailed in his extensive build notes at www.steampunkworkshop.com.

After fashioning a rear panel from perforated aluminium, giving the whole computer a suitable paint job and adding a Steampunked keyboard and mouse from previous projects, the PC was complete.

Although the result looks stunning, Von Slatt says that he's not entirely happy with it. "It's interesting that you mention the All-in-One," he says, "as I'm not particularly pleased with it. I find it overwrought and inelegant – but perhaps that makes it particularly Victorian! In any case, it's up for a 'redo' when I have the time."

Von Slatt has created a large range of other Steampunk items, from a redesigned electric guitar to his unique Morse code sounder, which taps out RSS feeds using the open-source Morse2LED package. Does he have a favourite piece from his unusual collection?

"Nope," he says paradoxically. "In fact, I care very little for the objects I make – certainly no more than I would for an un-modded keyboard or guitar. What I treasure is the time I spend creating them. That's what I crave far more than the results of my labours."

Creating your own Steampunk case mod

Von Slatt's advice to budding Steampunk case modders is to get stuck in and have a go. Of his own work, he admits that: "If you get up close, you can definitely see some warts, partially due to my own laziness, but also due to the fact that what I'm trying to create is objects that have their own alternative histories. Go looking for examples of things from the nineteenth century that bear a resemblance [to the object you're modding]. If you're modding a monitor, think about vanity mirrors, pictures and windows. For example, my inspiration for the All-in-One was a theatre stage."

Your imagination is as important as a steady stream of junk when seeking inspiration. "I'm not trying to create a brand-new Victorian PC," adds Von Slatt. "I'm trying to create the PC that a nineteenth century time traveller brought back from his Steampunk-style future. Another starting point can be based on your materials – go looking in junk shops and in the rubbish for something that catches your fancy, such as an old treadle sewing machine base or a radio cabinet."

"The build will be driven by an inspiration from something you saw," agrees Overton, "whether it was an old piece of junky equipment or a prop in a movie. If you're going to mod an existing computer then you could start with a simple case mod project. Try dressing the case with Steampunk fittings – loads of brass pipes, pressure gauges and valves. There's a lot of good Steampunk case mod work out there."

Indeed there is – the Internet positively bristles with intriguing, fanciful case mods full of gleaming metal. One example is a mysterious Steampunk case mod that began causing a stir in the community late in 2007.

Posted to the forum at Mod Planet, the case seems to be a water-cooled computer in a wooden case that's designed to look as if it's been pulled straight out of the pages of a Jules Verne novel. Gauges and dials bristle down its front panel and at the bottom is a small furnace that seems to power the whole contraption.

Tubes and valves apparently regulate the coolant flow and there's even a porthole to see what appears to be the machine's clockwork innards. All that's currently known about the enigmatic creator of this work is that he goes by the username Korko Czong and is either Polish or Russian.

Though this is thought to be an entirely functional modern PC masquerading as a steampowered mechanical one, it's clearly not necessary to make Steampunk creations entirely functional. In this upside-down world, imagination is just as important.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 281

If you liked this, why not check out 10 really cool steampunk keyboard mods

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