In Jules Vernes’ 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the mysterious Captain Nemo explores the depths of the ocean in a submarine of his own making, the Nautilus. Imagined well before the dawn of real underwater vessels like it, the Nautilus was made out to be a wondrous sight.
Verne described it as “a masterpiece containing masterpieces,” including large windows, its own library, a giant organ and an ornate dining room. It was certainly a far cry from the metal sardine cans that modern submarines turned out to be.
What though if Verne’s vision for the Nautilus had really come to be? What if technology had taken the luxurious Victorian route imagined by Verne, instead of the more utilitarian route that it actually followed? What would the rest of the world of technology look like?
A good person to ask might be Hieronymus Isambard “Jake” von Slatt, proprietor of the website “The Steampunk Workshop.” This modern-day mad scientist is one of the newest icons of the growing steampunk movement.
Steampunk began as a science-fiction genre, influenced by the works of Verne and H.G. Wells. In the late 1960s and 70s science-fiction stories filled with fantastical steam-powered devices and marked with some Victorian sensibilities began making an appearance in sci-fi magazines and on bookstands. By the late 1980s the science fiction community took notice, and the term steampunk — referencing the oft used notion of steam-powered technology — was coined by author K. W. Jeter.
In the last few years though, steampunk has busted out of its science-fiction roots, becoming a subculture of sorts, complete with its own fashion, music, magazine and manifesto. The overall aesthetic sense of steampunk is one that rejects the sleek minimalism of the modern world — embodied by the distinctively simplistic design of Apple’s computers and mp3 players — and replaces it instead with a more ornate design, one filled with a certain gravity.
For an example you only have to return the “The Steampunk Workshop,” where Von Slatt has posted pictures of his steampunk-influenced desktop computer. Von Slatt ripped apart his flat-panel LCD monitor, building a new frame out of brass-colored aluminium, replacing the display buttons with small brass-colored levers and mounting the whole thing on a fake marble base. He also gutted the keyboard, replacing the standard square-shaped computer keys with typewriter-style buttons mounted in a brass frame supported by brass legs and covering the exposed keyboard controls with black felt.
The result is a masterpiece, a fully functional display and keyboard that looks like it walked straight out of the Victorian Era, complete with brass flourishes and exceptional detailing.
Of course, the project required a great deal of patience and skill with power tools, so the inevitable question is why did he — why would anyone — bother with it? What is it about the idea of steampunk that drives people to such creative lengths? Part of it may be simple aesthetics. There’s no denying that steampunk just looks good. But looks don’t seem to be enough to explain the devotion that people like Von Slatt give to steampunk. There’s something beyond the aesthetics, something in the references to the Victorian era itself.
Steampunk ultimately harkens back to a day in technology when individuals counted for a lot more than they do today. New discoveries and inventions were not the province of university or corporate teams, backed by government grants and a huge pot of R&D funding.
Instead, progress came often from lone tinkerers, visionary scientists and brilliant inventors. The airplane came from the minds and hands of the Wright brothers, two bicycle builders. The entire alternating-current electrical system, much of which is still in use today, came from the mind of the mad genius Nikola Tesla.
Steampunk is the assertion of the individual, the rejection of the mass-produced for the uniquely crafted — the refusal to be labeled as a faceless consumer.
The movement, the genre, the subculture are all ultimately about the creative destruction of punk merged with a unique sense of aesthetics and bolstered by an optimism about the ability of human and individual potential.
It’s the dream that the world can be made a better place by one man or one woman, and as weird and novel as steampunk may seem, that at its core the dream is no doubt worth dreaming.
Asst. Entertainment Editor Andrew Swerlick is a College senior from Atlanta.