Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2004/5

Challenger presents a guest editorial …

SteamPunk: Towards a Better Yesterday

Christopher J. Garcia


Not too long ago, the Computer History Museum, where I daydream in exchange for a paycheck, received a very interesting machine for loan. It was a model of the completed portion of Charles Babbage's original Difference Engine made entirely out of Meccano, the British version of the Erector Set. As I sat, doing the four full rotations of the crank required to complete a third-order differential, I began to think about the London Science Museum's big build of a Difference Engine in the 1990s. Led by Doron Swade, the LSM used Babbage's original plans and made them work, building a complete machine that ran and then building the printer that would have gone along with it. They even named a new unit of measure, the Crick, which is equal to the amount of force it took ol' Reg Crick to turn the crank once. Contrary to popular belief, the difference engine was never planned to be steam-powered. To the untrained eye, Swade was leading a group in historical re-creation, but to the trained eye, he was doing much more.

I've been familiar with other historical re-creation societies for years. My father attended the 1968 BayCon Tourney that introduced the SCA to world-wide fandom, and I was involved with Santa Clara High's SCA club during my years there. I'd done several Civil War reenactments, which is hilarious as I've only done them in California and Nevada, far from any actual battle field. I even helped a bunch of folks who wanted to design a site where they could demonstrate World War I trench warfare. I'm well-acquainted with the beauty of bringing a portion of history back to life, which may have something to do with why I became a historian, but as I sat there, turning the crank of the Meccano Difference Engine, I realized that we've been doing it all wrong. That Doron Swade was doing historical CREATION!

Doran and the Meccano guy, as well as the only remaining automaton builder, François Junod, are working SteamPunks! They have taken the Age of Imagined Science and brought it forward to us, as improbable and pointless as it may seem. The one thing that this made perfectly clear is that all the other historical re-creation groups are bringing to life times that we've already left behind, and mostly for good reason. The SCA only re-enacts the clean and easy part of history, seldom touching on the plagues, betrayals and witch hunts, though I have heard of groups doing them, perhaps as a way of cleansing the historical palate. These newer Creationists are bringing about a world that never actually existed, though it did come close a couple of times. They can pick and choose what they bring to life without having to worry much about full authenticity. The ability to pick your history, to pick how intense you want to be and not have to worry about being contradicted is quite freeing.

So I now will make my proclamation: someone, somewhere needs to start the SteamPunk Recreationists, or what I shall hereforth refer to as the SPR. The SPR could hold events a kin to the Crystal Palace Exhibition or the Great Centennial Exhibition, showing off their goods and wares, interpreting the possibilities of Ye Olden Tymes, not merely finding a pattern or a recipe in some dusty old book. Imagine gatherings, held in rooms filled with pipe smoke and animal heads, where wild haired minds in vested suits discuss the design of dirigibles and steam-powered doohickeys that move things from here to there. Think of the possibilities! A ladies' sitting club where new methods of female convenience are debated and then, gasp, perhaps even built! The SPR would be a perfect fit for those of us who like the act of re-creating, but hate the arguments over the acceptability of costume or device. IT would be a group that is re-creating portions of history, while at the same time creating things that never truly lived.

There are many possible areas in which one could explore. Say you wanted to run your chapter as an American university, awarding tenure and arguing the merits of presented papers and artifacts. Perhaps everyone is working at the pleasure of Queen Victoria, who could award titles of peerage for fine designs and arguements. What about ancient Egypt? They certainly understood the power of steam and made complex devices, so why not bring that concept forward? Or, keeping it in the Victorian times completely, bring those old tales of the Weird West to live with literal iron horses, mad flying teapots, and crazy ore-extracting machines. Western recreation using SteamPunk ideas would be incredible!

That is my call. If you love tinkering and the Victorian Age, then gather some friends, found the SPR and make me your chapter's patron saint. You can show those Dickens Faire folks a thing or two and perhaps make some nice stuff in the process. Gather! Expand! Create while you recreate! A better yesterday is calling, and if I were you, I'd reply in kind.


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