How Steampunk Works

Steampunk Original Creations

The RSS Telegraph Sounder
The RSS Telegraph Sounder is an example of steampunk style.
Image courtesy Jake von Slatt

Not all steampunk art relies on modifying existing gadgets. Some steampunk artists create completely original pieces. While most of their work tends to be ornamental, a few inventive gadgeteers have created functional -- if not practical -- devices based on the steampunk style.

Jake von Slatt designed and built a telegraph sounder that accepts data from RSS feeds, converts the information into Morse code and taps out the messages. He first researched telegraph sounders to find out what materials he would need to build his own. After buying aluminum, brass and other supplies, he used various power tools to cut and shape the raw materials. Using some hitch pins, a few washers and some electric wire, he fashioned the electromagnets needed to make the telegraph sounder work. Once he had assembled the telegraph sounder, he connected it to his computer keyboard so that the sounder intercepted the signal sent to his keyboard's LED lights. He used a program called Morse2LED to translate text into Morse code. Normally, the LED lights on his computer keyboard would blink out the encoded messages, but since he had hooked up the telegraph sounder to intercept those signals, it tapped out the messages instead.

Von Slatt's creation is a good example of steampunk. It accomplishes a high-tech task -- transmitting information from RSS feeds -- using antiquated technology. Is it practical? Not unless you're fluent in Morse code. But many people in the steampunk community praised von Slatt's inventiveness.

Other creations have little or no practical purpose beyond establishing a steampunk theme. Some are relatively simple, like a pair of goggles made out of brass and leather. Antique tools and furniture are also commonly used to create a neo-Victorian atmosphere. Many steampunk fans are do-it-yourselfers who tailor their costumes, houses or vehicles to their own tastes.

Although most steampunk gear is custom-made, a few companies offer mass-produced options. Weta Workshop in New Zealand is famous for two things: designing and building props for films like the "Lord of the Rings" series, and creating and selling collectibles. Weta's collectibes include a line of limited edition steampunk prop rayguns. Dubbed "Dr. Grordbort's Infallible Aether Oscillators," the gun designs bring to mind old science fiction pulp series like "Flash Gordon" or "Doc Savage."

The art and design of steampunk has its origins in both the history of engineering and in science fiction. Learn more about the fiction that has inspired the work of steampunk artists and inventors in the next section.