Forward to the Past

Forward to the Past

The East Bay’s flourishing Steampunk culture marries Victorian aesthetics with sci-fi sensibilities.

The Four-Passenger Pedal-Powered Steampunk Parlor Car may sound like an invention with “Only in Berkeley (late 20th century)” written all over it—and justifiably so. But the interesting story of this vehicular fantasy goes back more than a century to the Victorian era, the guiding inspiration (or at least half of it) of all things Steampunk.

In 1894, a Paris newspaper held a competition for a modern, forward-looking automobile design, but the entries were distinctly disappointing, obviously inspired by done-to-death 18th-century sedan chairs or Venetian gondolas.

So writes K.G. Pontus Hulten in The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age, the catalog for a 1968 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He goes on to relate that a Paris department store sponsored a second contest the following year, which was also a creative failure. A car design by Pierre Selmersheim, which astounds contemporary eyes with its billowing Art Nouveau bodywork and carriage-like frame, won a money prize, but no award.

“One feels,” sniffed the judges, “that this kind of projectile or moving catapult, fashioned to cleave the air, is quite ready and able to devour space . . . If the originator of this project had given his imagination free rein . . . there is no doubt that this truly talented artist would have been rewarded with a medal.”


No cigar: Pierre Selmersheim’s invention won 500 francs in a French art-car competition in 1895, but judges withheld a merit award.

Selmersheim’s maquette, probably made of wax, was lost, but his idea lives on via Hulten’s catalog. Late in the 20th century, a copy of the catalog found its way to Berkeley’s Shipyard Labs, on Murray Street just east of San Pablo—once a haven, according to the Labs’ website, for self-described “tinkerers, gear-heads and steam bohemians” (in other words, Steampunks) founded by Jim Mason in 2001.

The city of Berkeley closed down the enterprise in 2007 for building code infractions, after several years of controversy. Stroll by the yard, however, and you can still see remnants of its heyday, when artists worked on Burning Man projects and other contraptions in studios made from 20-foot steel shipping containers purchased from the Port of Oakland. The fenced compound provided both communal workspace and a collegial creative environment, replete with heavy machinery. It hosted a variety of cutting-edge activities, from alternate-fuel vehicle races and raves to algae workshops and Survival Research Laboratory’s pyrotechnic robot duels. Participants have gone on to other projects and collaborations—Engineers Without Borders, the Chlorophyll Collective, and All Power Labs, to name a few. Today, the 11,000-square-foot yard still brims with dumpsters, scrap metal (including floral sculptures and whirligigs), and eccentric vehicles in various states of disrepair or completion. It is visually dominated by a bizarre vehicle known as the Neverwas Haul—a trailer-mounted, three-story Victorian house that suggests the pilot’s cabin of some terrestrial riverboat.


The way it wasn’t: The Neverwas Haul, a three-story “Victorian traveling home” built in 2006 at Berkeley’s Shipyard Labs by Shannon and Kathy O’Hare, is being revamped for an appearance at Burning Man this year. Top Photo by DeWitt Cheng, bottom photo by Dave Wilson (

But back to the past. Selmersheim’s idiosyncratic, 19th-century design, championed by Shipyard Labs member Kevin O’Hare, inspired two

Shipyard teams, the Neverwas Haul Crew and the Ottoman Empire, to adapt the design to their contemporary, art-car purposes. Kickstarter online donations in the sum of $3,000 got the project off the ground.

Et voilà, the Four-Passenger Pedal-Powered Steampunk Parlor Car. Minus Selmersheim’s florid French coachwork, rear-facing passenger cabin, and rumble seat, the vehicle resembles a dune buggy or Martian Rover more than a Gaudí hallucination on wheels. It is, however, eminently more roadworthy—and even, fitted with pontoons and huge 54-inch-diameter paddlewheels, seaworthy.

Laboriously fabricated, the new American version is specifically designed for self-powered art-car competitions and races “on sand, street, rails and sea” at venues like Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and the Maker Faires in Oakland and San Mateo, among other venues.

Sporting bicycle dérailleurs and chains, 23-inch-diameter gears, a surrey roof (matching passengers’ Victorian costumes), and steel wheels adapted for railroad tracks, the Parlor Car boasts a top speed of 9.5-mph. It is simultaneously elegant, gallant, and absurd—a delight for contemporary viewers, and possibly an inspiration, in turn, for do-it-yourselfers yet unborn. (For construction photos and videos, including a mock-heroic movie trailer, see


Though eccentric in different ways, Selmersheim’s car and the Parlor Car are both apt symbols for the historically anachronistic but aesthetically irresistible—and locally thriving—Steampunk movement.

A trend takes off: Liza James and Jared Axelrod on board the Baldwin 60000. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Now some 30 years old, Steampunk is an international subculture with its own conventions, clubs, music, art, and merchandise—“brown or copper-colored stuff with gears on it,” to quote one anonymous Steamer purist on a low boil.

The memorable name was coined offhandedly by writer K.W. Jeter in a 1987 letter to Oakland’s Locus magazine to describe a new genre of scientific fantasy that he and colleagues like James Blaylock, Ronald Clark, William Gibson, Michael Moorcock, Tim Powers, and Bruce Sterling were producing. He cast about for a term—“Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’”—and the coinage stuck.

Together and individually, these writers found themselves exploring an imaginary universe in which the Age of Steam would have continued to evolve uninterrupted, resulting in a technological landscape both familiar and strange.

“Steampunk is the fantastical past that never was, but should have been,” says Kory Doyle, a member of the Bay Area’s Steam Federation (, a local group for Steampunk enthusiasts, “a world of adventure at every turn, of incredible machines, daring heroes, bold inventors, and mad scientists, all set in the time when steam powered the world and the possibilities were endless!

“Usually set in the Victorian/Edwardian era (or an alternate version of it),” Doyle continues, “Steampunk tries to imagine a world where many of the modern innovations that had actually been conceived in that era, such as Babbage’s Difference Engine, an early analog computer, had actually been built.”

Hybrid hijinks: Corey Holden, also known as Captain “Lucky” Peddycord of the Bay Area’s A.E.T.H.E.R. Brigade comedy troupe, rocks the retro/futuristic Steampunk style. Photo by Spencer Stecko.

The 19th-century science-fiction novels of Jules Verne, with their advanced submarines (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), multi-propellered aerial warships (Master of the World), and gigantic moon-shot cannons and hollow artillery shells upholstered for the comfort of their passengers (From the Earth to the Moon) were inspirations.

So were the films made from the novels, beginning with the 1902 comic fantasy, A Trip to the Moon, by Georges Méliès, the onetime magician and film director portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo.

However, Verne and that other father of science fiction, H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds), are not the only progenitors. In an essay introducing Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s 2008 anthology, Steampunk, Jess Nevins cites additional sources in Gothic fiction, the works of Poe and Hawthorne, and the later novels known as Edisonades, after the miraculous inventions of Thomas Edison.

In the hundred-plus works of this genre—among them the Tom Swift books—written between the 1930s and the 1960s, writes Nevins, “a young American male invents a form of transportation and uses it to travel to uncivilized parts of the American frontier or the world, enrich himself, and punish the enemies of the United States, whether domestic (Native Americans) or foreign.”

Their adventures are not only amazing but also gadget-assisted. The Swiftian Electric Rifle, Photo Telephone, Electronic Hydrolung, House on Wheels, and Flying Boat morph seamlessly over time into the cool weaponry of James Bond and James West (The Wild Wild West).

Aimed at what Nevins calls “barely literate young men,” the Edisonades appealed to readers’ fantasies of power and wealth—and their assumption of the then-prevailing mainstream values of WASP superiority and the manifest destiny of the United States.

But though Steampunk, too, revolves around technology and adventure, it diverges from its wide-eyed literary antecedents in terms of worldview. “Like all good punk,” writes Nevins, Steampunk adopts an outsider’s stance, criticizing the status quo’s “treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everything else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism.”


Today, Steampunk conventions, somewhat like those presented for fans of comics or science fiction, but with a do-it-yourself ethos, are held in hotels across the country. Regional tribal gatherings take place regularly, too, like the Steam Federation’s weekly Crafternoons, where the spirit of fun prevails. Another group, the Bay Area Steampunk Society, meets weekly at various locations, drawing practicing steampunks from around the area (

A recent event for the now-closed Shipyard was billed as a meeting of the Hibernian Hellfire Club, a fictitious descendant of the rebellious drinking societies of the Romantic era. In a “secret” San Jose location, convivial 21st-century “thinkers, tinkers and drinkers” imbibed absinthe cocktails amid steam-powered trolleys, hookah lounges, and flaming zeppelins.

Steampunk-identified musicians include Unwoman, Vernian Process, and Jill Tracy (all based in San Francisco), as well as Sunday Driver, Platform One, This Way to the Egress, Imaginary Airship, The Absinthe Drinkers, and numerous others.

Theatrical and artistic troupes, too, have developed. The League of S.T.E.A.M (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management) of Los Angeles, “serving all your supernatural elimination needs since 1884,” deploys “advanced steam-powered apparition apprehension apparatus[es].”

For Bay Area interventions, the A.E.T.H.E.R. (Anachronautical, Extramundane Threat Hunting & Exigency Resolution) Brigade comedy troupe offers “protection and education against extramundane threats both terrestrial and beyond.”

Then there’s Steampunk visual art, melding science-fiction-adventure illustration with antecedents in fantasy art, particularly Dada, with its humorous absurdism. The early work of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, archaic-looking photographs of men attempting to fly, equipped with leather wings, or tied to flocks of birds, exemplifies the best of the genre.

Sculptural works tend toward theatrical props or accessories—an arsenal of commercially available rubber swords, utility belts, aviator goggles, monocles, eyepatches, “professor glasses,” propeller pendants, corsets, waistcoats, parasols, waist cinchers, spats, monocles, and techno-themed jewelry—rather than autonomous pieces.

But a recent show in England, The Art of Steampunk, generated an attractive catalog and the praise of Oakland sculptor Andrew Werby.

“I particularly enjoyed Tom Banwell’s variations on the gas mask,” says Werby, who makes his own anomalous sculptures, blending natural forms with both traditional and digital sculpture techniques. Werby also liked Thomas Willeford’s ornithopter and articulated arachniform, and Ian Chrichton’s “vessel for traversing the ‘Aether between worlds.’”

But, Werby says, he wonders “if there’s any plan to keep these exhibitions going, since I’d really like to see some of these things for myself, without having to time-travel back to Oxford circa 2009 in a brass and glass clockwork mechanism of my own construction.”


In fact, there appears to be little chance of Steampunk withering away any time soon. Steampunk imagery, both playful and dystopic, features ever more prominently in mainstream entertainment.

Movies like The Golden Compass, The Rocketeer, Sherlock Holmes, The Wild Wild West, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and games like Space 1889, about the Victorian colonization of Mars and its expropriation of gravity-defying Martian liftwood, are becoming the new normal.

And like other creative subcultures, Steampunk seems to strike a responsive chord in today’s corporatized, digitalized world. “It taps into a nostalgia for an era when things were made by hand from brass, glass, and wood and operated by clockwork,” Werby says.

“It appeals to people from techno-geeks and ‘makers’ to those who never got into modern art, but always liked their mechanical toys. And people who like to dress up in costumes and assume a character enjoy the concept, although they aren’t necessarily involved in the art side of it.”

Thatch Durbin, a member of the Steam Federation, says that a recent analysis of the group’s membership showed that participants range in age from 19 to 65, with “outliers” from the early teens to the late 80s. “Most have some tie to a fandom or sci-fi, but not always,” says Durbin, “and many come from historical or artistic interests as well. Regardless of what draws them in, the thing that really brings people to Steampunk and keeps the movement going is the sense of community.”

Steam Federation founder Gene Forrer concurs on the movement’s wide appeal. “People love not only making the gadgets and gizmos but figuring out what things are made of and how they are put together. Steampunkers also will tell you exactly how they made something and will even gladly give you tips on how you can make your own.”

For example, Forrer says, “I make walking sticks out of copper and brass tubing with antique doorknobs as heads.” Instead of competing with a vendor who sold similar walking sticks at a convention, “we spent the better part of the hour comparing notes on how we each put them together.”

Jacob Weisman of San Francisco’s Tachyon Publications (aptly named after a hypothetical subatomic particle moving into the past, faster than the speed of light), publisher of two anthologies of Steampunk fiction, conjectures that Steampunk is the paradigmatic postmodern phenomenon, playfully recycling and repurposing history. That idea is, obviously, somewhat at odds with our current grim economic mood.

Selmersheim’s proto-Steampunk car teaches us, however, that “wrong” ideas never disappear; they come back to the rescue, in slightly altered form, when reality has changed.

DeWitt Cheng writes about Bay Area visual art for Art Ltd., Artillery, Sculpture, Visual Art Source, and

Faces of the East Bay