Protospace Speech

Sunday, November 4, 2012

This is the text of a short speech that I gave as part of the open house for the new Protospace here in Calgary  yesterday.  Along with Monica Willard of SASS we were invited to give talks on Steampunk.  It was well received and seems to have got a lot of "wheels turning".
You can see more about Protospace at their website and Facebook pages.

The speech I gave is based on a my musings from last Sunday.

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

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is an honour to be able to join in the festivities to mark the opening of this new home for Protospace.
It's also great to see so many Steampunks in the room today.

I can tell you that many of us are really looking forward to getting our hands on the fantastic equipment Protospace has to offer.  Oh the possibilities! 

Now the more I wear my Steampunk clothes out in public, after the obligatory "Why are you dressed like that?", the more I get asked "What is Steampunk anyway?"

I've given a variety of answers. Things like; it is neo-victorian, or quasi-victorian, or an alternate history, or techno-fantasy.

Or... It is like the Wild-Wild-West and Sherlock Holmes movies, or the stories of Jules Verne or H.G.Wells etc.

While these are all reasonable catch phrases to use to describe Steampunk, they are just that, "catch phrases", and not really  a very informative description or explanation. When I get a request for more information, I usually fall back on the traditional "What If" comments...

"What if Babbage's mechanical computer had worked."
"What if the technological development had stopped with Steam?" or things like that.

This difficulty with explaining Steampunk, is not an uncommon problem. Anyone who has ever looked up "What is Steampunk?" on Google will turn up many pages worth of different descriptions and explanations.

So why is it so difficult to distill Steampunk down to a neat and tidy explanation?

It should be easy to explain, the "What ifs" and Neo-Victorian costuming should be enough but it doesn't feel right, it is too simplistic.

I think it's because the Steampunk scene is actually a "World" in the big sense of that word. It is not only a costume style, or an alternative music scene, or a design aesthetic. Steampunk encompasses all of these, as well as the diversity and complexity of the social Goth and Punk movements. It is also not simply a matter of being "Goths who discovered brown" as a friend once snidely remarked. Nor is it strictly speaking a "Geek" thing or an "historical re-creation gone bad" thing, or a basement tinkerer's thing.

There is vastly more here that should be explained. Steampunk is of surprising interest to many people. People that one would not at first expect to be interested at all, are donning a corset and goggles, or a top hat and cravat, and heading out for tea at the nearest fancy hotel, or quaffing a pint at an English style pub. People who would never think of taking their car apart for fun, are tearing apart old clocks and gluing and sewing their gears to their hats and delving into the arcane mysteries of Babbage's Difference Engine, or watching Youtube videos of old steam engines, airships and early motor cars, and becoming intimately acquainted with the smell of brasso, leather,steam heated oil, and coal smoke.

I've noticed an interesting pattern, when there is one Steampunk there will shortly be more!
The same can be said about cockroaches of course, but hey...

Once people see that it is OK to dress up and pursue their interests, in the way the Steampunk scene allows them to do, it doesn't take long before they start to do just that.

My own reasons for being active in the Steampunk Scene are probably not the same as anyone elses, and like most things in life, our motivations are idiosyncratic, the result of our own history and experiences. So trying to distill "Steampunk" down to a soundbite is just as hard as doing that for our everyday lives, and perhaps, just as futile.

A better way, is to contrast the Steampunk Worlds with our everyday world. I'm going to do that through two of the great pillars of invention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Thomas Alva Edison and Nicola Tesla were men of outstanding genius and creativity, but, they were radically different in how they worked and how they saw progress and invention.

The modern world around us is Edison's world. The world of designed things, the mass production of goods for the largest number of consumers. The world of corporate design, where marketing minor differences and improvements, each a tiny incremental development from the last, is the key to success.

Born in Milan Ohio in 1837, Edison grew up without much formal education (three months was the longest stretch at school), suffering from hearing loss as the result of scarlet fever he worked for Western Union as a night telegrapher so he could indulge in his passion for reading and inventing.
He devloped an automatic repeater for telegraph signals and other devices but his first big invention, that caught the public eye, was the phonograph in 1877.

Edison's famous quote in 1932 that "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" sums up his style perfectly. Dubbed the "Wizard of Menlo Park" he created the first Industrial Research Park in Menlo Park New Jersey in 1876. Here, in a laboratory that eventually covered over two city blocks, Edison hired brilliant technicians and engineers and worked to perfect ideas and concepts that would be commercially successful.

Menlo Park was famous for having a stock of every conceivable material. A newspaper article in 1887 revealed: "it included eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels ... silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell ... cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores ..." and on and on and on. 

Edison certainly was one for trying out every possible combination when having his staff work on new designs.

His "improved" incandescent light bulb being a perfect example.

Famous for his not having any formal education, and avoiding mathematical analysis of his results, he nonetheless is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history with over a thousand U.S. patents to his name. He was close friends with the titans of US manufacturing, like Henry Ford, and financiers like J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who were always on the lookout for the latest things to invest in themselves. His various companies were very successful, and also very jealous in protecting his patent rights.

Edison was conservative and cautious in making pronouncements about what his inventions could do, and where they would lead.

This is the world of design by incremental improvements, safe, profitable and BORING!

The Steampunk world however, is the world of Nicola Tesla.     

Born in Serbia in 1856, Tesla had a troubled childhood plagued by mental problems that today might have led him to a life of medicated stupor. He managed to fight though his mental illness through shear force of will and in the process became adept at visualization. He may have had a photographic memory as well, and so was able to synthesize information into mental experiments of incredible detail.  People who knew him described him building new devices from these ideas and having them work essentially right out of the shop!

He immigrated to the US in 1884, to work for Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, and once there he quickly established a reputation for invention and analysis that amazed Edison and many others as well.
After leaving Menlo Park, over a dispute with Edison about being paid as promised, he developed and patented the AC system of power transmission and started his own company to develop it. Licensing his patents to Westinghouse he was instrumental in the design and construction of the Niagara Falls power station, the first long distance AC power generation and transportation system in North America.

Edison had bid on the same project using his DC system but J.P. Morgan the main financial backer for the project chose Tesla and Westinghouse to construct it.

Tesla went on to discover and develop radio systems (patented before Marconi), remote radio control of vehicles, wireless power transmisson systems, high powered induction motors, and even the spark plug used for internal combustion engines.  He had nearly 300 patents of his own, some of which are only now surfacing in the archives of Eastern Europe.

So why do I say that the Steampunk world is Tesla's world?

Tesla was never shy of extrapolating from his discoveries and designs. He would tell audiences of what his work could lead to. His enthusiastic and fantastical descriptions of flying machines, portable phones, electronic storage systems, global communications, world wide power systems, remotely controlled vehicles and  weapons of immeasurable power, left his audiences, and his backers, stunned and dismayed.

To the conservative business oriented world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was the architypal "Mad Scientist", useful but dangerous.

He didn't care if his inventions had a long way still to go. They would be useful some day if only he could keep working on them.

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is our kind of inventor!

The Steampunk world is the same kind of extrapolation of ideas, from early technological developments to what might have been done with them, in the absence of the business man's innate conservatism. We revel in the extension of technological ideas into the worlds of techno fantasy, what ifs and what might have been.

It is here in places like Protospace thar people can really build the creations we imagine.

Welcome to our world.
Nicola Tesla would be proud.

Thank You.


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