Page last updated at 09:15 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 10:15 UK

Steampunks gather for Great Exhibition

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


Ian Crichton, aka inventor Herr Doktor, takes us around the Steampunk party for period 'scientists'

The Great Exhibition of 2010 was held at London's La Scala club - though on a smaller scale than the 19th Century original. This one was a party for steampunks where they could come together to show off their creations and costumes.

Steampunk has rapidly grown as a sub-culture among makers, hackers and crafters the world over. It takes the Victorian era as its inspiration, but imagines how it might have been had technology been more advanced during the days of Empire.

"It's a highly literate art," said Tobias Slater of White Mischief, which organised the night. "It's unlike the original punk, it takes quite a lot of work and dedication to end up looking this way."

For him, steampunk is all about "raiding the garret of the past to make something new". Stalls were dotted around the venue showing off some of some of the new that had been made from the old.

The exquisite steampunk models of Ian Crichton (aka Herr Doktor) were on show, including his Thunderbuss - an elaborate 'sonic gun' intended to scare off birds.

Steampunks, Kelly Cochrane

Professor Maelstromme and House of Hirudenia displayed jewellery and clothing and craftsman Shipton Bellinger had built some modern gadgets to give them a neo-Victorian feel.

Most popular was his "portable information cabinettes".

"They are otherwise known as USB flash drives but we like them rather more ornate than most," he said. "They have been well and truly steamed."

The USB drives were housed in a case of English oak stained and polished to a high shine then adorned with metalwork such as tiny brass gauges and, in one case, piston and smokestack.

'Eclectic taste'

For Ian Crichton the surprise of the night was the numbers that had turned out.

"I'm amazed there's so many people here," he said. "Considering it's such a niche genre it's amazing that you can walk into a room of 1000 people and not know any of them."

The vast majority of party-goers went in costume. There were more top hats being worn than at any time since the days of Dickens and many were adorned with gears and goggles. Guns and swords were tucked into belts and many used a fob watch to keep track of time.

Alongside those in frock coats and corsets strolled women aviators, adventurers, explorers in pith helmets, street urchins and soldiers in dress uniform.

Steampunks, Kelly Cochrane
There was a military theme to many costumes

"One of the really good things about this is the mix of people you have," said Allegra Hawksmoor, editor of The Steampunk magazine.

Evidence of the movement's eclecticism was demonstrated by the bands that played on the night.

The roster included The Clockwork Quartet which describes itself as playing "steampunk, folk narrative songs" and Tankus The Henge, who combine brass, guitars and a steam-powered piano.

Also playing was Mr B the self-styled gentleman rhymer who combines "beats, rhymes and manners" into a charming whole he has dubbed "chap hop" rather than hip hop.

The sheer variety of music, performers on display led many to ponder what steampunk was becoming and if it could be described as a unified sub-culture.

"This is a niche," said Mr Slater, "though I hope this is the start of fomenting a bit of a social movement."

"It's going to hit the threshold where the media start to think about it and that's how more and more people will discover it," he said.

Miss Hawksmoor from The Steampunk Magazine is keen to remind people of the politics that informed the first punk movement, which had a very DIY element to it and set itself apart from the establishment.

Many of those involved in steampunk do take a political stance by championing open source software, transparency and the use of licences that let anyone rip mix and burn what they have done.

For polymath Edward Saperia, steampunk's origins are linked closely to the rise of the net and the maker culture in particular.

"It's about the realisation that technology will probably solve our problems and it is good thing and we should learn about it and use it," he said.

The Victorian elements are present, he believes, because that was the last great industrial shift that mirrors the big changes being inflicted on society by the rise of the net.

"Think about how things were 10 years ago, 20 years ago," he said. "Everything has changed. Now no-one can even say what things are going to be like in five years time."

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