Make Free — The Great, Perverse Joy of Steampunk

Craft & Design

Tom Jennings is a skinny, pierced, and tattooed DIY engineer in his early fifties, a self-described “queer punk.” In 1984 he launched FidoNet, a way for dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSes) to pass messages back and forth. FidoNet let each BBS spool up messages for other BBSes, then phone in whenever rates were cheapest to pass them on.

FidoNet nodes passed messages on to other nodes to be delivered further down the line, in a robust and elegant fashion, so that messages could be delivered to almost anywhere in the world for free. (The alternative? Telegrams, expensive long-distance voice calls, or leased lines).

I first met Jennings long after the founding of FidoNet, at a conference in a remote location near Silicon Valley. He was putting on a performance, a uniquely technological, Jennings-esque show. A MAKE contributor, Jennings hoards and restores antique computer equipment, and that weekend, he showed up with a bunch of bar-fridge-sized tape readers and teletype printers, sheet steel devices that smelled of machine oil.

He’d prepared a biography of computer science pioneer Alan Turing, punched into a long roll of black paper tape. His homebrewed tape reader had no uptake reel — the tape went through the reader and unspooled onto the floor, all weekend long, until it made a waist-high, snarled mountain of paper. The reader was connected to one of those fridge-sized printers, and all weekend long, it printed out the biography. When it was over, Jennings threw away the tape.

That solid bar-fridge of a printer, like the walnut, waist-high console stereos of my grandparents’ rec room, hearkened back to a gentler era, an era when technological change unspooled at a more genteel pace. Back then, it made sense to build a machine to last for ten years, 20 years, 50 years. Machines of all kinds — plows, log splitters, printers, stereos — were things of enduring utility.

Today, most machines aren’t built to last. iPods are finished with material that scratches if you look at it sideways — put it in your pocket for five minutes and it looks like it’s been in a rock tumbler for a month. It’s not as though we don’t know how to make alloys that resist scratching; I have a pocket full of change that’s been grinding against keys for years and still looks sharp.

But what would be the point of an iPod built to withstand the ravages of time? Remember those gen-one MP3 players, the size of a half-brick, able to hold a whopping two or three gigs? Keep one of those for ten years and it becomes an unwelcome houseguest, a relative who’s overstayed his welcome. You want to be able to toss that overweight, underpowered brick in the trash ten to 18 months after taking it out of the package without feeling the guilt that comes when you set a well-made, precision-engineered console hi-fi out at the curb, still smelling faintly of the Murphy’s Oil Soap your family’s been rubbing into it since 1965.

This is, I think, the great, perverse joy of steampunk DIY projects — taking disposable junk-tech intended to last for a year and putting it into an artisanal enclosure that stands in testimony to the artifice of the cabinetmaker, the metalworker, and the leathersmith who worked together to turn this ephemeral technological moment into a lasting statement that could find its way into a museum someday.

What does it mean to live in a high-tech era and be fascinated by the aesthetic of steam, the neo-Victorian maker look? It’s neither futuristic, nor particularly nostalgic; rather it tells us that today, in the present moment, we are practicing the mental gymnastics necessary to find something beautiful and exciting today and disposable tomorrow.

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Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist.

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