Steampunk tech mods: A 19th-century take on 21st-century PCs and gadgets

If Sherlock Holmes -- or Jack the Ripper -- had owned our technology, his equipment might have looked like this.

  • Friedrich Ambience Enhancer

    You can enhance the ambience of any location through the judicious application of "Musical Programme Type Threes" (MP3s) directly into your aural tympanum. Why endure the cacophany of a 21st-century city when you can listen instead to Gilbert and Sullivan?

    Molly Michelle Friedrich made the headphones of her Ambience Enhancer first. She combined the working parts of a Sony MDR-006 (which she found at a bus stop) with a pair of vintage Cannonball Empire headphones purchased on eBay. "They sound great!"

    But such headphones want to be plugged into something aesthetically pleasing. So Friedrich sewed a cover for her Sansa 2GB MP3 player; added leather, brass, and a strap; and had a music player that she could elegantly wear.

    Friedrich is a professional artist living "mostly" in Seattle. She describes her favorite music as "Bavarian yak herding music played on electric zither." She works primarily in jewelry, much of it with a Steampunk theme. You'll find her work at [[xref:||]].

    Photo: Courtesy of Molly Michelle Friedrich,
  • The Steampunk Workshop Hinged Monitor

    You spend an awful lot of time staring at your monitor. Wouldn't it be nice to have something elegant to look at?

    Von Slatt started this project with a Dell 1907FP flat-panel monitor; and though he "hesitated to tear open a $300 monitor that was still under warantee [sic], art must be served."

    Rather than replacing the monitor's steel casing, he aged it with a careful application of paint. Then he added a couple of 19th-century gas-lamp arms and a base, and he really had something to look at. You'll find [[xref:|a more detailed account|Steampunk Flat-Panel LCD Mod]] at the Steampunk Workshop.

    The monitor is now being used by "The Lady von Slatt."

    Photo credit: Jake von Slatt, The Steampunk Workshop
  • An Introduction to Steampunk Technology

    We may have awesome technology, but our great-grandparents had awesome-looking technology. And therein lies much of the appeal of the [[xref:|Steampunk movement|Steampunk]].

    Today's sleek beige boxes and flat black screens can't hold a candle (or a gaslight) to the polished hardwood, intricate cast iron, and careful craftsmanship of the Victorian era.

    Today, a handful of gifted artisans are taking hammer and blowtorch in hand to correct the imbalance between function and form, turning their PCs, keyboards, MP3 players, and cell phones into unique works of art that recall the aesthetic sensibilities of a bygone era. In this slideshow, we'll look at the work of five of these makers (as they call themselves).

    These artisans are part of a larger movement that combines modern and Victorian technologies. There are Steampunk novels (James P. Blaylock's [[xref:|Lord Kelvin's Machine|Lord Kelvin's Machine]] and [[xref:|Homunculus|Homunculus]] , and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's [[xref:|The Difference Engine|The Difference Engine]] ), movies ([[xref:|The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen|The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen]] , [[xref:|Van Helsing|Van Helsing]] ), and even [[xref:|cakes|cakes]].

    But for the moment, we'll stay out of the kitchen and show you tech workmanship instead.
  • Van der Graffe Tooled Leather Roll-Top PC

    A postal worker by trade but a leather worker by inclination, Van der Graffe took on the dull beige box itself when he converted a conventional case into something much classier.

    He tooled the leather himself and added a roll top that he had removed from a bread box. The knobs in front function as fan controls.

    Van der Graffe also assembled the PC's relatively conventional-looking innards. They include an MSI motherboard, a Core 2 Duo processor, an nVidia 9600 graphics board, 2GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. The dual-boot PC boots Microsoft Windows XP and [[xref:|Ubuntu Linux|Ubuntu Linux]].

    And yes, Van der Graffe uses this PC as his primary computer.

    Photo: Claudius Van der Graffe, [[xref:|Steampunk Empire|Steampunk Empire]] and Photo Bucket
  • Friedrich Commodore 64 Base Unit

    Turn [[xref:|a Commodore 64|Inside the Commodore 64]] into an antique? Now that's redundant. On the other hand, this early, 8-bit computer never looked this good in its first incarnation.

    Working on a commission from Robert Bernardo of the Bay Area C64 User group, Molly Michelle Friedrich turned the old computer into something that looked even older, with wood paneling, brass trim, and decorative keys.

    "The buyer was working with a budgetary restriction so I had to simplify it as much as possible," admits Friedrich. Her dream design, which [[xref:|she has posted on Flickr|Commodore mod]], includes a blue glow emanating from within the machine, as well as a light-up logo.

    Photo: Courtesy of Molly Michelle Friedrich,
  • Van der Graffe Pocket Watch USB Drive

    A proper gentleman must carry a watch. But why can't that watch also house photographs, music, programs, and data?

    Claudius Van der Graffe (aka Claude McDonald) added flash RAM storage and a USB port to an old-fashioned pocket watch, shown here perched on top of his leather mouse pad.

    Van der Graffe found "some sort of musical pocket watch" at a flea market. After removing the music-making apparatus, he had enough room to fit in a 2GB flash drive.

    And yes, it works. It tells the time and stores data.

    McDonald lives in Indianapolis, where he works for the U.S. Postal Service. "I didn't find Steampunk," he told me, "it found me."

    Photo: Courtesy of Claudius Van der Graffe, [[xref:|Steampunk Empire|Steampunk Empire]] and Photo Bucket
  • Datamancer Computational Engine

    With its fine wooden craftsmanship, mantel clock, and Underwood keyboard, this computational engine would hardly seem out of place in a respectable, middle-class home circa 1900.

    And note the vertically mounted, transparent optical drive below the monitor.

    "Celebrate the historical heritage of the modern Personal Computer...the way it should have been," [[xref:|proclaims its maker, the Datamancer|Datamancer]] (aka Rich Nagy).

    Regrettably, the Computational Engine no longer exists as the functioning Windows XP PC it once was. Nagy dismantled it prior to a cross-country move, and it has been sitting in storage for the past year and a half. He's currently working on an improved version.

    A former Web designer from New Jersey, now relocated to California, the Datamancer is now a full-time, professional commission artist.

    Photo: Courtesy of Richard Nagy of
  • Datamancer Ergo Keyboard

    For the sake of our wrists, keyboards must feel good. But why can't they look good, as well?

    When commissioned by a female client, the Datamancer set out to create a wrist-friendly keyboard with "some elegant, feminine design features." These include a brass leaf-pattern trim, and cut-glass, violet-colored LEDs that could have come from the Disney's version of [[xref:|20000 Leagues Under the Sea|20000 Leagues Under the Sea]].

    The keyboard's ergonomic features include a burgundy wrist pad (removable for cleaning) and a buttonless touchpad. This keyboard slants away from rather than toward the user. "It looks odd at first, but actually makes for a very comfortable typing position."

    The original keyboard that Nagy built this version around is almost an antique itself. It's a [[xref:|IBM Model M-15 split ergonomic keyboard|IBM Model M-15 split ergonomic keyboard]]--a model from the mid-1980s.
  • The Steampunk Workshop All-In-One PC

    As proprietor of a Website called [[xref:|The Steampunk Workshop|The Steampunk Workshop]], Jake von Slatt can't use a dull-looking mass-produced PC. So he built his dream machine. And yes, he uses it regularly.

    He started with a 24-inch Soyo LCD monitor, which he trimmed down to size with a table saw ("Don't try this at home," he warns in [[xref:|a demonstration video|Table saw monitor teaser]].) He then mounted the monitor on an aluminum plate that also supports a 3.2GHz P4 motherboard and an nVidia graphics board.

    Von Slatt custom-built a copper heat sink, complete with fan; then he mounted two 320GB drives on vibration mounts at the top of the case. And he placed it all in a knick-knack shelf that he found at the dump. You'll find [[xref:|a full description of the manufacturing process|Victorian all one PC]] at the Workshop.

    In real life, von Slatt is a Linux system administrator for a Massachusetts-based R&D company. "I really didn't discover Steampunk so much [as] I discovered...the term Steampunk fit so well the things that I was already doing."

    Photo: Courtesy of Jake von Slatt, The Steampunk Workshop
  • Mavrovic Cell Phone

    I don't know much about the Croatian artist Ivan Mavrovic. His blog has the promising name [[xref:|Mental Design|Mental Design]], but I don't read Croatian, and the English translations don't help much.

    I can't even tell you whether the gear-, screw-, and spring-adorned cell phone pictured here still works. It apparently started life as a Nokia.

    The gears and screws look far more utilitarian than the woodwork and polished brash of American Steampunk mods, but they are strictly decorative. Perhaps that's the result of decades of Communist rule: Post-Socialist Magic Realism is clearly a different aesthetic from Antique English Victoriana.

    Mavrovic's other works include [[xref:|a mouse made from a sheep skull|Bright side of death]].

    Photo: Courtesy of Ivan Mavrovic, Blogspot
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