Steampunk at the Steam Museum

Sounds like a dream ticket, actually. The Kew Bridge Steam Museum, one of London’s little treasures, has been having an exhibition of Steampunk art, which ended this weekend. After this, the bulk of it will be heading up to Lincoln for the big annual Steampunk festival there in September. Actually, much of it looked familiar, and indeed, quite a bit of it was also at the Steampunk exhibit up in Oxford last year we wrote about.

Much if it is gorgeous stuff, as we have highlighted, and much if it is quite funny, as anyone who has paid attention knows. Steampunk artists have to have a sense of humour in the first place, obviously—when you start out in tongue and cheek mode, there’s only one direction to go. But this is serious stuff, too—steampunk art, unless it’s dirigible posters or something, is more steampunk crafts—because this stuff, like, say, watches, is constructed, designed and assembled with great care in most cases. And the level of craftsmanship is brilliant. How about a steampunk sonic blunderbuss?

Or an air pump? (One of the pieces we saw in Oxford)

How about a Steampunk Dallek (for those Dr. Who fans out there?):

And, of course, the obligatory death ray:

And we couldn’t possibly get by without our steampunk bomb disposal suit:

The museum itself is fantastic—an old (and quite large) pumping station for the Metropolitan Water Board, this was one of London’s largest water stations, pumping gazillions of gallons of water. And what pumps! These are all intrinsically simple, but the craft that went into manufacturing and maintaining them as working instrument was considerable. Honestly, whoever decided to array a bunch of Steampunk art around some of these pumps, which are stunningly beautiful combinations of form and function, is a genius. The line between steampunk and steampump has been obliterated here.

Here’s one:

Here’s another:

Or this, in operation at the time of the photo, which is three stories high:

Or this small but perfectly formed one:

These are all steam pumps that pumped water to London’s millions. But steam pumps powered the industrial revolution, starting with Thomas Newcomen’s engine, then engines by Watt and scores of others. And there was a time when every man in England was familiar with how these steam engines worked, because they drove everything—not just water pumping stations, but manufacturing, and mining (for which Newcomen invented his engine), and rail and sea transportation as well. This was a world powered by steam and coal, and it often was brutal, and certainly was loud. It’s tempting to get nostalgic, but let’s not get carried away.

But still, these are items of beauty in their own right. And they speak to a world where craftsmanship was essential. We’ve lost that, and I suspect that’s part of the allure of steampunk, which, like Goths, shows no signs of going away. Cherie Priest has commented that steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown. And there were plenty of both steampunk fans and Goths at the museum. What gets made these days that requires craftsmanship? Certainly not machine tools, which get churned out on the back of computer-aided design. Large gas turbine engines these days are impressive as hell, but they’re large, and the scale is wrong. Or pretty much anything else, for that matter. When is the last time we picked up anything made in the past fifty years and marveled at its elegance, its beauty?

And that’s what steampunk gets us back to. Yes, it’s nostalgia, but nostalgia always has its roots in what we think we’ve lost. And in this case it’s pretty clear. It’s the loss of control of things, not just our built environment, but the things that make it go—what can anyone fix these days? Cars? Appliances? My CD player, all of five years old, has conked out. Is there a chance in hell of getting it repaired? No, of course, not. I’ll be told it’s cheaper to get a new one. And so the culture of modern obsolescence continues its degrading run. And our cultural degradation as individuals continues apace as well—our inability to actually do anything increases proportionally to our inability to actually connect to the material world.

No wonder men are pissed. We see it all around us, the testosterone-fueled rage that infects our American culture, ranging from hip-hop to redneck country, and American politics, where the Republican Party has succeeded brilliantly in capturing male rage as a sure-fire vote getter. For most of our history men did stuff. Often it was stuff upon which family survival was at stake. And for most of the population, it was stuff that involved both knowledge and craft of some sort. Farming, for example. And for the past several hundred years, sustaining the mechanics of the industrial economy. But little by little this has been chipped away. Neal Stephenson had it right in the Baroque Cycle—for all our fascination with the digital, it’s the analog that still keeps much of the world going. And we’re steadily losing control of this.

12 replies »

  1. I think the thing Stephenson gets – and I first started hearing it from my audiophile friends as CDs began replacing vinyl – is that analog is inherently warmer and more human. Digital is precise to the point of fascism, but humanity isn’t about precision, it’s about the rough edges and the flaws.

    Fun piece – well played.

  2. Too bad he doesn’t get editors. The new book, coming out this month (I think), clocks in at 912 pages.

    But you’re right. But we keep finding new and better ways to isolate ourselves from an analog world. But the world IS analog.

  3. Dive a little deeper, gents – everything is analog, even digital. You just need to know how and where to look.

    Hmmm, there may be a post in there somewhere….

    • Whether a specialist can repair it, or whether a non-specialist can repair it? Because there’s almost nothing electronic that I couldn’t repair, and we’ve had a society where non-specialists can’t repair certain goods since before the industrial revolution. After all, your average peasant could repair his thatched hut but couldn’t forge his own iron tools (never mind building Notre Dame). The question here is whether repairing a digital device is worth the time and effort, and that’s not fundamentally an issue of digital or analog – it’s an issue of economics and values.

      Let’s not use technology as a stand-in for a value discussion.

      • Let’s not use technology as a stand-in for a value discussion.

        Brian, I hereby sentence you to read my dissertation. There is no way to talk about tech that ISN’T a values discussion. You may not be aware that you’re talking values, but you are. Every time.

        • Sam, I’m not saying you aren’t having a values discussion, rather that if you’re going to have a values discussion, then have an honest-to-Gods values discussion. Don’t use technology as a way to euphamize the values you’re talking about.

        • Brian: I think my point is that we as a culture have invisible values discussions all the time using technology as proxies. The issue goes to the deep, DNA level assumptions we make about tech.

  4. I must be missing your point. Good for you, you can repair things that I can’t. But you’re already dealing with this as a specialist–how can you not be? Which is a far cry from your average person taking off the back of the tv and seeing which tubes have burned out, or replacing the brushes on a motor, or any of the basic stuff that those of us who aren’t specialists–let’s call us generalists–used to be able to do. The fact that there have always been specialists doesn’t negate that fact. And, in fact, your early American farmer–in fact, your average American farmer up to recently–could fix everything on his farm, and some of them did have forges. Is he likely to be able to repair the electronics on the little gizmo that now appears on his tractor to precisely measure the amount of whatever chemical he’s using in terms of the data coming in form the satellite feed, and which also measures soil conditions? According to the folks I speak to at the tractor companies, probably not.

    And why not use technology as a proxy for a value discussion? It’s important, and it’s not value neutral. I’m not anti-technology by any means. But technological advances, while having benefits, usually have costs as well. Supermarket scanners may be economical for supermarket companies, but they’re often a pain for shoppers, and they’re eliminated a lot of entry level positions at supermarkets. Being able to pay for and pump my own gas may or may not be time-saving for me, and while I’m glad it cuts costs for the service stations and oil companies, it makes my hands smell like gasoline. More importantly, kids who wanted to be mechanics and would start out pumping gas down at the station don’t have that option any more. Plus it was a way to keep people employed, not a bad thing. When things ran on motors and gears and belts, you could more or less figure out how they worked. That’s just not an option for most people any more, even if they do have the time and effort. I’ve tried taking a CD player apart. Good luck on that–the thing is riveted shut. So it’s off to a “specialist.” Any bets on what he’s going to tell me?

    • Alright, here’s my point – you still CAN do all those things if you care to. If you wanted to crack open your CD player and fix it, you could. You don’t need to be an engineer like me to do it, either. You’d need a digital multimeter and some basic circuit concepts that you can teach yourself using free resources on-line, you’d probably want a few other relatively inexpensive diagnostic tools, and some soldering skills. Once you identified the busted part, it would probably cost you a couple of bucks to get a replacement from a distributor like Digi-Key online. Since I was young kids have been doing this all the time without any specialist training. And you could too. You choose not to, but you could. Just like I can change my own oil, pour my own concrete, or put in my own sprinkler system, yet I’ve chosen not to do any of those things.

      That’s one of the types of values I was talking about – time vs money. I can do all those things I listed, but because I value my time more than my money, I choose (or chose) not to do them myself and instead pay a specialist to do them. You could spend the time to learn the basic skills about electronics and the money to acquire the tools I mentioned above, but you can choose to have a specialist repair your busted CD player or you can choose to buy a new one.

      The problem isn’t generalist vs. specialist, it’s basically mechanical vs. electrical skill sets. Neither is better or worse than the other – they are merely different. It’s true that today most anyone can figure out from gears and pulleys how some mechanical thing works, but that wasn’t always the case historically. That’s part of progress, I’m afraid – the nature of skills required to create or repair a technology evolve from specialist knowledge to generalist knowledge to basic education as the technology is introduced, becomes common, and then becomes an integral part of everyday life.

      You have a point about technology not being value neutral because everything has costs, and that’s true. But in every case you describe, the problem isn’t the “cost” of the technology as such, but rather a more fundamental cultural value that is imposing that cost upon the technology. For example, the issue with mostly having to pump your own gas (whether you want to or not) is that the station owner values his income over the employment of a kid who might want to be a mechanic. Similarly, self-scanners mean that the supermarket company values something else (be it profits or union bashing or reductions in customer wait times at check out) more than the jobs.

      The costs in every case I can immediately think of are a symptom of the value choices rather than inherent to the technology. Technology always has costs, yes, but what those costs will be are value-derived, not technology derived.

  5. I have a long and complicated reply to this, but it will need to wait until tomorrow. It’s late here!

  6. OK, a couple of things. As far as costs being value-derived and not technology-derived, I think that it doesn’t matter. They’re still costs, and have social ramifications. Note that the potential for costs usually doesn’t prevent a technology from being introduced. In fact, it’s usually next to impossible to prevent a technology from being introduced–just look at what has happened in the media industry the past couple of decades. Whether or not it actually sticks, however, is dependent on all sorts of other things, like whether it works as intended, whether there are ancillary uses that evolve, and ultikmately whether the benefits for users outweigh those costs. Not that it always goes smoothly, of course, and the law of unintended consequences often kicks in. Sony missed with betamax, but was still able to sell lots of movies on VHS when that emerged as the standard. Then they missed again when they misread the lessons of movies and tried to map them on to the music business.

    My more general point, though, is that the similarities between the electronics skillset and the mechanical skillset aren’t necessarily comparable, and my point about craftsmanship I think suggests where they are different in an important way. People acquire mechanical skillsets by means of a variety of routes, sometimes being a specialist, sometimes being a generalist. And the point about mechanical skillsets is that often (not always, but often) these are generalizable across other skillsets. Being a good woodworker doesn’t ensure that one would also be a good tool and die guy–but there are enough similarities in the craft of what is involved to suggest that the “feel” acquired with one would lend itself to the other. And there is a craft involved–knowing good work, and being able to recognize it. I don’t see this with an electronics skillset–yes, the level of expertise may be comparable, but I don’t see the generalizability, in particular onto a mechanical skillset.

    So I see where I was confusing things. The first is the scalability issue. Of course people can learn to fix their CD players if they have the time and inclination. But this is, as you correctly point out, partly a time issue–it would take me time that I would rather devote to other taks. But partly that’s a function of why I make that particular decision–which is gournded in scalability. I don’t see that having that specialist expertise will necessarily help me get through my day, or my life, except when the CD player breaks down again–I don’t see that that particular knowledge is scalable, in the way that familiarity with a mechanical skillset is. Or was.

    Which gets me back to what I guess was the point, however well camoflagued, of the original post. We, or at least I, respond positively to steampunk artifacts because I recognize the craftsmanship involved. And I do that because I understand the mechanical skillsets that underlie that craftsmanship. These aren’t just pretty shiny objects with a sense of humour. These are actual tools, or are at least designed to look like them (the air pumps are real air pumps, the watches are real watches, but I hope that death ray thing doesn’t actually work). My point wasn’t that we don’t need skillsets to get through the day, or to fix things, and I recognize that the electronics skillset is now a necessariy one. But I see the loss of the mechanical skillset as a cultural loss worthy of comment–in part because we are more flexible and adaptable with the mechanical skillset than without it, and in part because we may reach the point where we no longer recognize craftsmanship when we see it.