An inventor who goes by the name Datamancer has modified his laptop so that its popular qualities — light, thin, resistant to falls — are lost. But something even more wondrous has emerged. Datamancer’s laptop is completely encased in mahogany-stained pine, like a Victorian music box, resting on clawed brass feet. Leather patches set with handmade brass tacks serve as wrist wrests, and the keyboard consists of typewriter keys. To boot it up, you must wind a key.
If you ask Datamancer why he would bother to do such a thing, he would give you a simple answer. It’s all for the love of steampunk.
Steampunk has its roots in science fiction literature, where it describes a corner of the genre obsessed with Victoriana and the idea that the computer age evolved alongside the industrial. Steampunk stories, which started appearing with regularity in the 1980s, eschew clean and orderly visions of the future in favor of gas-lighted streets, steam engines belching toxic smoke, and dastardly villains inventing strange technologies. Dirigibles rule the air, and the upper classes employ clockwork servants to serve their meals.
In the past two years, though, steampunk has emerged in the real world, as Datamancer and a growing number of enthusiasts build steampunk objects and then share photos of them on the Internet. One of the first was the appearance last summer of a group of robots designed by the San Francisco Bay Area artist I-Wei Huang: They look like 19th-century locomotives with legs and are literally steam powered. This year alone has produced steampunk watches from Japan (bizarre assemblages of rusted brass, cracked leather, and antique watch faces) and a steampunk tree house (a steaming metal tree that houses a main room with all manner of secret compartments and drawers) at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. There is even steampunk fashion, such as a combination dress/overalls adorned with gears and belt loops for every lady’s steampunk tools.