Page last updated at 09:12 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Tech Know: Fast forward to the past

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


A Victorian DVD drive and a sonic 'thunderbus' to scare birds are among the inventions that Ellie Gibson encounters when she visits the steam punks

In Victorian times much chatter in drawing rooms and salons was directed towards defining the qualities of a gentleman.

Novelist and sportsman Robert Smith Surtees ended debate in 1858 when he wrote that they prove themselves by their actions rather than by simply declaring their membership of that distinguished breed.

Steampunks - contemporary Victorians - share the same elusive qualities.

"It's hard to define. It means different things to different people," said James Richardson-Brown, a steampunk who regularly sports a mechanical glove of his own design and construction.

Broadly, steampunk is about re-imagining the Victorian age and creating the appliances, clothes, weapons and lifestyles that might have come about if some present-day innovations had been invented way back when.

"It's about taking modern technology and presenting it in a way that the Victorians would have accepted," said Mr Richardson-Brown.

Source road

The telltale qualities of steampunk are also hard to list because its fans come to it via many different routes.

Mr Richardson-Brown's interest was piqued by the moment in Back to the Future III when Dr Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, steps from his workshop carrying a modded Winchester rifle complete with telescopic sight.

Steampunk arm, A Scrivener

Fellow steampunks Amanda Scrivener and Ian Crichton followed their own path.

"I was always into the goth scene and my fiance was into steampunk," said Ms Scrivener. "At first it was him and his two mates. That was three years ago and now it's not him and three mates, it's 300 people."

"I was fired up by the clothing, the aesthetic and the fun of making gadgets," she said.

Ian Crichton, aka Herr Doktor, was inspired by Doctor Who as played by John Pertwee and Tom Baker.

"It was on when I was propped up in front of the TV on a Saturday to keep me quiet," he said. "That would have been the catalyst."

The broader field of steampunk traces its origins to an offshoot of science fiction which detailed a fictional past in which zeppelins, trips to the moon and Mars and science that depended on the harnessing of titanic energies was commonplace.

One of the best known steampunk works is the Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The novel's setting is a world in which Charles Babbage built a working computer, the Difference Engine, and gave the computer revolution a 100-year head-start on when it hit this timeline.

Since then the ideas have cropped up in short stories, films, cartoons and on fashion catwalks. Its influence is becoming more and more pervasive.

The "punk" in the steampunk name comes from cyberpunk which was a hugely influential branch of science fiction pioneered by, among others, Gibson and Sterling. It swapped space opera for gritty streets, body mods and the "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace.

The "punk" comes from the DIY ethic that powered the music of the same name.

Home makers

And just as with gentlemen, it is by their actions that steampunks declare themselves.

Many adopt Victorian dress. Frock coats, waistcoats and top hats are popular among men. Women favour gowns, bustles and corsets.

Morlock Nights/ Infernal Devices - KW Jeter
The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
The Difference Engine - William Gibson/Bruce Sterling
Homunculus - James Blaylock
Howl's Moving Castle
The City of Lost Children
The Time Machine
Scarlet Traces - Ian Edginton
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright - Bryan Talbot
Girl Genius - Phil Foglio

Most are bedecked with accessories that were never even dreamt of in the days of Victoria. Goggles are enhanced with extra lenses, metres and sights. Jewellery is fashioned to look like miniature pumps or knife switches. Brass, leather, buckles and cogs are all to the fore.

Many are dedicated makers and crafters who make their own clothes, accessories or mod their gadgets to have a more neo-Victorian feel.

Partly, said Mr Crichton, this is because they have had to.

"There's a lot more people open to the idea of changing something," he said. "And it's not something you can go and buy off the peg yet."

Many make clothes, accessories and jewellery with a view to wearing them in public. Steampunk balls are becoming more common as are conventions and themed outings.

"It's a fantastic excuse to dress smartly," said Mr Crichton. "We're of a generation that only gets dressed up for weddings and funerals and that's about it."

Some have gone beyond clothing to fashion household items that fit the steampunk aesthetic. For instance, Mr Richardson-Brown has turned a DVD drive into something more marvellous by swapping the drab plastic case for one made of wood, marble and a brass handle.

"Gadgets today are all the same, just grey or black plastic," he said.

Mr Crichton, a professional modeller by trade, has created the Thunderbuss - an alarmingly authentic sonic rifle that looks like it was plucked from the steam trunk of a Victorian gent about to step onto the red Martian regolith.

The growing number of artists and amateurs who have built steampunk devices has led the Oxford Museum of the History of Science to mount an exhibition of them. The show runs until February 2010.

Browse the exhibits and spend time with steampunks and it becomes obvious how to spot members of that distinguished breed - they are the ones with the swagger and buckets of style.

Are you a steampunk? A maker or crafter? Use the form below to get in touch, let us know what you are building and it could be the subject of the next Tech Know.

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