Friday, March 19, 2010

The Steampunk Aesthetic and Rapid Prototyping, a Perfect Marriage?

As you might notice from the title of this blog and some of the graphics that I have used, I am a fan of the steampunk movement. For me it probably started back in the early 70’s when I first saw Disney’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and the movie version of H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The look and feel of all that Victorian technological equipment fascinated me more than the stories and I have loved it ever since. During the intervening 30+ years I always thought that I was just an eccentric oddball (which, of course, I am) but apparently there were any number of people out there who felt the same. Over the last decade it has grown into a movement with it’s own websites, stores, books, newsletters, games and all the associated detritus of a modern social phenomenon. The specs above were created by Y43GR at Deviant Art.

These days I am more given to analysing things than I was back in my teens so I have been thinking about what it is about steampunk that attracts people. I suppose that there are as many answers as there are different people but, in my case, it is the fact that it represents the rise of the individual inventor and craftsman. During the late 1800’s the industrial revolution brought high quality equipment and parts within the reach of many people who previously were not able to manufacture anything themselves. They could take that hardware and use it to build their dream gadgets. It is the fact that these machines were one-of-a-kind pieces, built to high standards of both function and beauty, which makes them so attractive. The Victorian craftsmen lived and worked in an era when ornate decoration was as important as the actual operation of the device. Since every piece was a one-off, it was worth investing the time.

Jake Von Slatt's steampunk computer

This combination of mass produced industrial hardware and individual craftsmanship only lasted for a short time. Rising labour costs and the creation of the assembly line brought us to our modern world, where everything is affordable but nothing is unique.

So how does this relate to Rapid Prototyping? Well, we are now entering another era when individuals will be able to manufacture, in their own workshops, whatever they desire. These items will be as individual as their creators and, even if we all pass around the .STL files to make multiple copies, there is always an impulse to personalize “your” version of someone else’s design. A quick look at repstraps out there shows an amazing variety of designs, all reflecting their creator’s individual goals and design choices. They even have unique names, as was common for Victorian devices.

I have been wondering what a steampunk Mendel would look like. The rod used throughout would have to be brass, of course, as would all the connectors. The various plastic parts could probably be made out of wood but that really goes against the whole reprap philosophy. Perhaps black ABS with scrollwork grooves that could be later picked out with gold paint. Add a build surface of polished wood with a brass plate for the heater and you have a RepRap for Captain Nemo. Handy when you are on the bottom of the ocean without your full shipyard available and you need a replacement trigger for your electric rifle.

Nemo: "Drat, my electro-rifle is damaged. To the Mendel M. Aronnax!"

Perhaps the actual steampunk fad has just about run its’ course. Now that it seems to be everywhere on the internet, maybe folks will become bored with it. I hope not, I love the whole brass and wood look with the elegence that they imply. I am not enough of a sociologist to know for sure how long steampunk will last but I believe that the underlying philosophy that drives the design and creation of such unique hardware will continue to be apparent in the RepRap community for years to come

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