“Maker” is what I do, “steampunk” describes the style

“Maker” is what I do, “steampunk” describes the style

[Pics by Gary Mattingly]

Steam Powered, the first California Steampunk Convention has drawn to a close. What a fantastic, inspiring event! Bowlers and top hats off to Ariane Wolfe, Tofa Borregaard, Richard Bottoms, and everyone else who made the con come off so well. I met tons of cool, friendly, and talented people, marveled at the most outrageous and lovingly-constructed costumes, and liberated far too much of the contents of my wallet in the service of fellow makers and craftspeople.

The highlight of the event for me was Jake von Slatt’s keynote and the presentation of his Wimshurst Influence Machine. This gorgeous and impressive electrostatic generator will be the featured project in MAKE Volume 17, the Lost Knowledge (aka “Steampunk”) issue. This event was something of a coming-out for the device.

Jake’s plane was delayed and he arrived late to the convention and his talk. Overwhelmed with the rush, technical difficulties, and a video camera floating in his face, he was a little wobbly out of the gate, but nobody really cared. Herr von Slatt is much-beloved, a rockstar to this crowd, and his unpretentious charm and spot-on keynote quickly overcame any initial awkwardness (plus it only adds to the mad scientist mystique).

Jake started off with a laundry list of promised futures we’ve been teased (or threatened) with but have never seen (the ’50s jet-packed future, the ’60s geodesic-domed future, the ’80s road warrior future, the cyberborged, downloadable you of the ’90s), all the way to today, where the promise and timescale of our possible future seems to have been reduced to a corporate calendar of next-gen home theater and Bluetooth offerings and the next Steve Jobs keynote. Jake asked:

Is it any wonder then, that some of us have decided to take a step sideways? A step out of the corporate time stream and into one we’ve made for ourselves? A step into a world of adventure and romance where we each seek out our own futures, on our own terms, without having to wait for it to go on sale? A step sideways into a past that never was and a future that still could be.

He paused and declared:

I am a maker. “Maker” describes what I do and “Steampunk” describes the style in which I most commonly work. Thus calling me a “Steampunk Maker” is roughly equivalent to calling someone a “Jazz musician.”

For the rest of his talk, he borrowed heavily from Institute for the Future’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s “Reflections on Tinkering,” something he wrote while attending a conference entitled “Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge: Production in the Digital Age.” “Academics are studying tinkering!,” exclaimed von Slatt. “And they actually GET IT!” As he read, he asked the audience to freely substitute the word “steampunk” for tinkerer, e.g.:

Tinkerers are also social animals. Their success depends in part on being able to tap into porous and ad-hoc communities. For most of what they do the manual is useless; other tinkerers are the only ones who are likely to have the information you need.

[You can read the rest of Alex’s conference musings here.]

After Jake finished his talk, to rousing applause, he showed off his Wimshurst Machine. It’s beautiful and elegant and made with hand tools (with the exception of an electric drill) and parts readily found at Home Depot. Even though it was very humid in the standing room-only conference space, he still managed to get a couple of pretty sobering sparks from it and some genuine “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” from the crowd. Jake also brought a set of “Franklin’s Bells,” and had no trouble getting them to ring with the charge stored in the Wimshurt’s Leyden Jars.

During the questions and answers, someone asked him how he became such a technical virtuoso. How did he learn to use all of these tools and machines? “My parents were both librarians,” he responded, deadpan, to a roar of enthusiasm. “They didn’t answer questions, they pointed you to the relevant sources where you could look things up for yourself.”

Somebody also asked him: “How does one become a maker? I don’t even know where to start. I’m a unmaker.” [Laughter] “Well that’s where you start,” he replied. “You start out as a breaker. Take stuff apart. Find out how it works. Break it. Eventually, you’ll start to figure out how things work and how to make what you want.”

And then it got weird. People started asking him what his visions were of our future, how he wanted history to remember him, and what he wanted his encyclopedia (“Wikipedia,” he corrected) reference to say. I was waiting for the pantaloons to start flying forward.

It really struck me — as someone who’s watched Jake’s net-fame grow from the beginning (we published one of the first pieces about him in MAKE Volume 09) — how amazing it is that someone can go from being a shy, reserved Linux IT guy to ascending to geek stardom, simply by posting some cool projects that thoroughly fire people’s imagination and show them possibilities for themselves. I remember him telling me on the phone once how exciting it was when he put up his first few projects and started to get enthusiastic email. And that just egged him on to try to do better, cooler projects that would inspire more people and garner more attention. And on and on… It also doesn’t hurt that Jake IS how he answered the question about how he wanted to be remembered: “He was a really nice guy.” And so he is.

Here are a few costume pics from the con:


[More pics and favorite moments of the con tomorrow…]

8 thoughts on ““Maker” is what I do, “steampunk” describes the style

  1. Phillip Torrone says:

    nice stuff gareth!

  2. jakeofalltrades.wordpress.com says:

    “Unpretentious charm”–ha! When will you journalists learn that those shiny machines you beg this fiend to operate in front of you are nothing more than crudely disguised mind-control engines? If you value your conscious mind and will, you must never allow von Slatt to twirl a crank or throw a lever anywhere near your personage!

    Defending the goodly public,
    Jacob W. Hildebrandt

  3. Jake von Slatt says:

    Ah, Hildebrandt – you finally begin to understand the power of the techniques we worked on together back in Helsinki.

    It is such a pity what happened in that city, such a pity indeed.

  4. Datamancer says:

    Congrats, Jake! I’m so happy for you! This steampunk thing has been a wild ride, to say the least.


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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