Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Gears?

Of all the archetypal symbols of Steampunk the gear is probably second only to goggles in prominence.
Immortalized in the parody song "Just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk", these bits of machinery festoon our gadgets, our hats and our clothes. We print them on our business cards, display them proudly on our banners and website backgrounds, and even include them in our tattoos.

But why gears?

What is it about these round, spiky, bits of brass and steel that conjure up the essence of Steampunk?

There is something about the utility of them that attracts the eye. They embody purposeful design in their shapes. When built into working machines they spin, transforming energy into useful motion, shifting speeds into power and vice verse. Whether it is the tiny gears of a finely crafted watch or the massive bull gears of a powerhouse. Each one holds a mystery of purpose that can only be determined when it is in place in the machine for which it was designed.

Even when a gear is isolated from its place it still has an essence of purpose about it.

At a recent event I attended, the host's son received a Christmas present, the wrapping of which included a home made ornament on which were glued tiny real gears made of brass. It was a very neat bauble. But glue doesn't stick to brass very well so some of the gears fell off and we had to find then. Each little brass sparkle shone like a star against the floor. There was no mistaking them, they stood out like snowflakes made of gold.

As I picked one of these gears up I marveled at the intricacy of the mechanism it would originally have been a part of. Probably a watch of some kind I suppose, but sitting there in the palm of my hand the gear could have been a part of anything. Maybe it had been designed as part of a control mechanism for a much larger machine, an automaton, or a power plant. Maybe it was the critical gear from the control of some fearful weapon. Or maybe it had been part of a miniature Babbage engine used to calculate the navigational equations used on an airship.

Gears are quintessentially human artifacts, they are mathematical constructions frozen in brass and steel.  They fit together with others of their kind to make things happen. Without them mechanical systems cannot work efficiently. Even in the digital world of today, gears still spin at the heart of the smallest and largest machines. They may be hidden inside cases of plastic and steel, but they spin along in the darkness as they have for hundreds of years.

Perhaps there are gears spinning inside the very foundations of the Universe itself.

In the Steampunk world, we celebrate these creations of art and science. We display them proudly in visible mechanisms and in symbolic form, for they are the means by which magic happens.

Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.


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