When asked a question, didn’t all mothers use to say, “Look it up!” It was either their way of getting us to use the dictionary and encyclopedia, or avoiding an incorrect answer. I have a challenge for “shirlandyou” readers, look up steampunk and tell me what you find. What makes it a challenge? If you don’t have a newer edition of Webster’s you won’t find it. It’s not in mine, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and in fact, my computer keeps underlining the word in red.
Steampunk was new to my husband and I, until we were invited to bring “Shirl
Belle,” our band organ, to The Watch City Festival, in Waltham, Massachusetts. When the Waltham factory began production of pocket watches, they sold for $12 to $16, a lot of money in that day and age. But today, tucked in my husband’s vest was a Waltham pocket watch complete with a gold chain, a watch he had completely refurbished years ago. (That’s when he was repairing watches and clocks as a hobby.) We toured “The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation,” where Waltham watches were made from 1851 to 1957 when the factory closed. The company’s innovative use of machinery to make watch parts inspired Henry Ford to incorporate similar techniques in his early automobile factory.
How did steampunk fit in here? Waltham is also the original “Steampunk City.” As we
visited there, I asked people what does steampunk mean? Once the “Watch City Festival” got going I had my answer. So now I’ll try to explain it to “shirlandyou” readers. The best description I heard was that steampunk is the blending of Victorian era fashion with science fiction gadgets. Since band organs represented this era, its old Victorian songs set the scene for the event.
Another description of steampunk is that it is a literary and artistic movement that melds elements of Victorian-era history with modern technology and fantastical fiction. When science fiction authors Jule Verne and H. G. Wells wrote of airships and sailing in submarines, in their Victorian-style speculative fiction, they described the world as it is today. Science fiction author, K. W. Jeter, coined the phrase in 1987, as an alternative to the very high-tech futuristic style of “cyberpunk,” thus steampunk caught on and this was the second year the “Watch City” held a fun-filled weekend where the fantasy of steampunk and the real history of Watch City came together on the city commons, a beautiful park located in the center of old Waltham. ( I should note here that I am not recommending K.W. Jeter’s writings.)
Steampunk answers the question, “What would the world look like if modern technology were available when steam, was king, corsets were mandatory and man was just learning to fly.” So the thousands of people in attendance came dressed for the Victorian era, nearly all wearing the goggles like those worn while driving a Model T automobile, and similar to what the Wright Brothers wore. Many did carry with them gadgets, distinguished monocles, a mechanical arm, using gears of all shape and sizes they crafted antique looking apparatus, one with a digital camera hidden inside and gear filled boxes strapped to their backs appeared to be responsible for keeping them in motion. A model dirigible was pulled from behind in a wagon and some were dressed in the military dress of that era.
It was rather crazy, but allowed people to make a statement. I must tell you I’m not sure what that statement was. Some said it was an alternative to the very high-tech of today, where plastic reigns supreme and everything is streamline. I think it was mostly done for fun, and not one of those participating would truly want to live back in the age when modern technology was a dream. I’d love to hear your take on steampunk.