I had no idea how big steampunk has gotten. There was a gathering of them in Waltham this last weekend at the Watch City Festival, and 17,000 people showed up. I took the kids there on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and there were people in costume everywhere:
Most of the men were in top hats and brass goggles, since you never know when you’ll need to do an emergency dirigible liftoff. The women were in big skirts and corsets, lending an air of kink to the proceedings.
The festival was centered on the Charles River Museum of Industry, which is full of the old machinery beloved by these neo-Victorians. The museum is in the shell of the first integrated textile mill in the country, built in 1814. It was so successful that it kick-started to the Industrial Revolution in the US. It was based on British machinery, reverse-engineered by the great Paul Moody. As usual, though, his VC backer, Francis Cabot Lowell, was the one who got a city named after him, while Moody only got a street.
The city of Waltham is quite enthusiastic about the festival, since it has few other attractions for visitors. It’s a nice way for them to take pride in their industrial history. They’re still a hub for high-tech; I had my first real engineering job here, building pre-PC microcomputers in the old Waltham Watch factory building, and my last company has an office here now. It’s a bit run-down in general, though, so they’re glad to have such a big crowd show up. Just as Civil War battlefields get fans out to reenact the period in blue and butternut, Waltham gets Heyday of Industry fans here in parasols and jewel-encrusted ray guns.
In looking around at this crowd, I’m struck by what a revolt this is against the Apple minimalist aesthetic. Here’s what they think a PC should look like:
Not Less Is More, but More is More. Everything is made individually, and by hand, instead of in million-unit lots by robots and Chinese serfs. Everyone follows their own taste instead of that dictated by Fearless Leader Jobs. Apple won’t even let you load your own software onto their devices, much less reconfigure it in brass and crystal. Appleoids may dress in simple clothing of solid colors, but the punks prefer hats and hand-embroidered vests.
My own taste leans towards the Apple side, but I appreciate what the steampunks are doing here. No more of this barren white and silver future, where we all huddle over screens inhaling caffeine. We want a baroque future of strange lands and airships and absinthe. We don’t want smartphones, we want gauntlets with aetheric links and built-in heat rays. We want to dress like men and women instead of androgynous corporate cogs. We want to look up and out at the sky and sea instead of down at our tablets.
Yes, I can see it, and I can see why all the steampunks here were young. They don’t like the world we Boomers have made, and are looking backwards for a better one.
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