Thy fearful gadgetry: Steampunk’s mad scientists
Gadgets are just another cog in the clockwork of steampunk characters.
December 14th, 2011
10:41 AM ET

Thy fearful gadgetry: Steampunk’s mad scientists

While crafting typewriter key arm guards, goggles, clockwork corsets and mechanical replacement arms in his workshop, Brute Force Studios owner and craftsman Thomas Willeford often reaches what he likes to call the “Tony Stark point.”

“I’m working on a project and there’s a point in my head where I’m imagining the mechanics of it,” Willeford said. “My first degree is in physics, so it has to make sense and look like it works. It’s as if I’m making the real thing.”

Willeford grew up in a Victorian house with a “mad scientist” grandfather who was a chemist for DuPont and a grandmother who adored Victorian splendor and design. It’s not surprising that Willeford became interested in steampunk as early as 1988, long before he even knew the term for the subculture.

With the exception of his typewriter key arm guards, all of Willeford’s creations are functional. He is also the author of the first book on how to make your own steampunk accessories, “Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos.” But beyond function, what Willeford and other steampunk craftsmen like him value is the narrative thread that pulls steampunk as a movement together.

“People don’t dress steampunk, they come up with a character,” Willeford said. “You don’t just put on a lovely waistcoat and a top hat – you put on Lady Farthingale’s outfit for hunting on Venus because it’s Velociraptor season.”

Every chapter in his book includes a piece of fiction at the beginning that explains the use of the item. The arm guards are a way to communicate with the crew on your airship, by sending information back and forth through crystal resonance. And mechanical arms become a fashionable badge of honor for Civil War veterans who have suffered through amputation.

Willeford’s own character, Lord Featherstone, is the “evil genius” behind the creations of Brute Force Studios. Sometimes, the gadgets create the characters for these steampunk mad men. Other times, the characters are the foundation for the gadgets. Either way, limitless creativity is intrinsic to both.

For Joey Marsocci, his fantastical creations led to his steampunk character, Dr. Grymm. Marsocci, who grew up fascinated by “Frankenstein” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” used his training from the California Institute of the Arts to lead art direction on the 20,000 Leagues attraction at Tokyo Disneyland.

Then, he began making machines that were based on the historical brains of Edgar Allan Poe and Amelia Earhart in Dr. Grymm’s Laboratories.

“The machines are supposed to run off of their brains,” Marsocci said. “They teach what the person was about, and offer an alternative version to their life, had things turned out differently. All of the things that I build have a story behind them, and Dr. Grymm is the mad scientist behind it all who would be crazy enough to take the brain of Poe and stick it in a machine and make it come back to life.”

Marsocci is also what he calls a “steampunk artist liaison” – if he can’t work on a project, he sends commissions and recommendations out to his personal network of artists all over the world. This far-reaching steampunk community helps “build a world that didn’t happen into reality” for the subculture, he said.

It is a network that is kind to veterans and newcomers alike.

A relative newcomer to steampunk, Geoffrey Smith was first exposed to it at ConnectiCon in 2010, and it inspired him to start crafting and selling medals, hardware guns and modified Nerf guns through his shop, Thee-Gartisan Works.

Smith incorporates himself and his company into the running steampunk narrative – Smith takes on the character of a Scottish engineer, retired from the British army and running a franchise of the French Thee Gartisan Gunworks out of Scotland among his “gremlins.”

He considers the DIY aspect of crafting character-based steampunk items to be a chicken or the egg question: “Is it that the DIY look to the things we make is what causes it to be appealing, or that it’s pretty much the only way these items can exist?”

But what Smith enjoys most of all is the repurposing of antique items in crafting his hardware guns, which means using lamp parts, bed post finials, plumbing pipe and floral misters to make elegant derringers, rifles, pistols and carbines.

Steampunk clockmaker and owner of Klockwerks Roger Wood can relate to that love of discovering the magic in creating something new out of an old object. He builds extravagant clocks using repurposed antiques and spends half his time tracking down the inspiring pieces that he will use to craft one-of-a-kind clocks.

Long before he knew the term steampunk, Wood was creating his Jules Verne-inspired pieces.

“Why do I like steampunk? I’m a hopeless romantic, and it’s machine bits, gizmos and gadgets, a bit of fantasy and whimsy all thrown in,” he said. “I just took to it like a cat to catnip.”

Besides a love for steampunk before they knew the term, all of these men have a strong common thread: They all know Bruce Rosenbaum, and they’ve all worked together to exhibit their steampunk creations.

In the steampunk community, Rosenbaum is known for his work with steampunk exhibitions like Mobilis in Mobili, Charles River Museum’s Steampunk Form and Function and the Mark Twain Houses’ Steampunk Bizarre (the latter developed by Dr. Grymm). But Rosenbaum is also known for his company, ModVic, which restores Victorian homes, steampunks the interior and combines an antique aesthetic with modern convenience.

When Rosenbaum and his wife moved into a Victorian home with an eye for redesigning it, as he says, “steampunk found us.” After the couple brought in a 1890s cast iron stove and modified it from wood-burning to modern oven, their friends told them they were “steampunking.”

After remodeling their own home, ModVic was soon created to help others turn their Victorian homes into magnificent, functional sculptures of steampunk design. The couple also repurposes salvage and antique items to create steampunk interiors for homeowners and businesses, in addition to disguising modern technology in antique casing.

“People love this because you have these beautiful objects that don’t have a function anymore, but now we’ve given them new life and purpose, so people love seeing those opposites coming together and making something new,” he said.

Trends in steampunk design may come and go, but the aesthetic and ideas will never be abandoned by the subculture that created them. Steampunk is a supportive community for artists, authors and anyone with a creative streak.

“These are the people who feel like they have found their home,” Willeford said.

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soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. orange county kung fu

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    June 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  2. John MM

    Isn't this article a little late out of the gate?

    January 21, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Matt

    As with any of the other realms of creative beauty, those who are the modern DaVinci's who are both master artists and master craftspersons make functional art, Jake Von Slatt is IMhO representative of that and Bruce Rosenbaum as well. Their pieces with a few exceptions function. Those who are wonderful artists and can dream fantastic designs but do not also have the inner master craftsperson to draw from share their dreams as non functional art. This in no way detracts from the art or the artist, the art can still bring joy to people.
    Largely though, we have been taught to color inside the lines, many employers want us to only be creative in the way they tell us to be, some not at all, it all gets a bit much. Imagining that there might be some such thing as an Heterodyne Aether Wave Induction Drive while we look at a mass of beautifully assembled copper and brass married to odd recycled gauges and gears backed up by a silvered sail and a picture of a Zeppelin in space is indeed fun and allows the mind to escape from the world of cubicles and traffic jams at least for a little while.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  4. Massive Marbles

    I have a great domain name for sale which I most likely will use: if anyone is interested, look it up!

    December 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  5. atxitmom

    This brings to mind the PC games Syberia, Myst, Riven, and possibly Curious Village. The first movie (including book series) I thought of was Lemony Snicket, although Hugo may also be included (I have yet to see it).

    December 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  6. bp

    Love it. Lynch's version of Dune was so far ahead of its time, as was Wild Wild West. From now on will look at old machinery and wonder how it could be adapted.

    December 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  7. PattiG

    Thought I'd give a shout out to a great steampunky show that barely got off the ground....Legend, with Richard Dean Anderson and John De Lancie. My husband and I love the creativity as well as the recycle-ability of well done steampunk! Thanks for the article.

    December 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Drowlord

      Or the much-better Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

      December 15, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Massive Marbles

      There were many great steampunk shows that you may not have even realized. The Wild Wild West series with Robert Conrad, The Doctor Who series, Sherlock Holmes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Any adventure by Jules Verne.

      Its like we've broken through to a parallel world where all of the futuristic Victorian devices are developed and used for daily life.

      December 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  8. hawkechik

    The people who say "what's the point" haven't got a creative gene in their bodies.

    December 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • SherwoodOR

      Sometimes, things don't need a point. Sometimes the point isn't clear until you get there. Sometimes, you find that the point of something is that thing itself. You just never know until you try.

      But there is one thing you can always be sure of: if you try something, if you do something, you will learn. You may learn that what you tried or did wasn't so good, but that's a good thing to learn too.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  9. nera

    Lots of GUNS!!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  10. Jorge

    This stuff makes me think of what technology and live would have been like in the U.S. without the influence of countless immigrants, minorities and foreigners like Tesla, Lilienfeld, Von Braun, Carver, Faraday, Castillo, Bosch, Marconi, Cervera-Baviera, Fermi, Fleming, Hashimoto, Yamasaki, Benz, Diesel, Blair, Boykin, Jones, Crosthwait, Guillaume, Sikorsky, Leowi, Alferov, Biro, Boneh, Cohen, Eisler and many, many others; in otherwords, a pure WASP world.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Drowlord

      Makes me think about what the world may have been like if any more than a few rare oddballs throughout history cared about technology and invention. Also, weird that nearly your entire list consists of white scientists and engineers or minorities in the philosophies and arts. Doesn't really push your point very far.

      December 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • what?

      Are you serious? This steampunk stuff SHOUTS Tesla so much more than it does Edison, Bell or the like.

      December 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Van Wievel

    The negative comments are truly the best part of this article! "What's the point," asks one typical troll. Maybe it's that part about getting off the couch, putting down your beer and turning off the football game, and doing something with other, actual, real people (playing Farmville and Mafia Wars on Facebook doesn't count) and spending time with people with similar interests. Kind of crazy, right?

    I do admire the negativity from people who don't get it. It's not something they are interested in, so it must be strange and therefore they must pan it. I guess I look at people who congregate once a week on hard, uncomfortable wood benches to hear someone say they are going to burn for eternity as even stranger behavior. Or those guys who get tumescent over other guys who earn millions of dollars for running around a grassy field with a little ball. And most of all, those people who make fun of other people but don't have any activities or interests of their own.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • James

      Well said.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Mike

      Our benches are cushioned just for your information.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Rachel

      So because I like to interact with people about football and sports makes me a beer swilliing loser? If people want to put their energy in steampunk, great. If they love to read, great. If you're a nature nut, fantastic. But responding to criticism and stereotyping with the same sort of behavior is kinda silly and hypocritical. Just because a lot of people like something doesn't make you a moron for liking it too.

      December 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  12. Miss Marcy

    Cute and interesting. But what's the point?

    December 15, 2011 at 4:53 am |
    • Drowlord

      What's the point of any speculative fiction? It's fun to imagine different worlds.

      December 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  13. A N

    I would have loved this "movement" if people were actually tinkering and making functional gadgets more than just a bunch of costumes. I've only been able to find a handful of ppl who actually do that. It's sad really. If you wanna make fancy costumes that's fine but how is that anything but just theatrical costuming?

    December 15, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • SherwoodOR

      Look into the "maker movement." The "Maker Movement" people have quite an affinity with the "Steam Punk" crowd. But, as you suggest, they like to make things that actually work.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  14. Ryan

    Steampunk – taking modern technology and putting in a setting where it does not belong, i.e. Victorian England, or the wild west (Wild Wild West show and movie.) Jules Verne I would not say was steampunk. He was a visionary, didn't take future technology and write about it in his era. He created the future. I think the new Sherlock Holmes movies are considered steampunk but not sure.

    December 14, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • LinSea

      Totally, as well as 'Wild Wild West' (with Will Smith), The Prestige, Van Helsing, The Golden Compass, and a lot of Hayao Miyazaki's films. The Lemony Snicket movie also has some components.

      December 15, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • Marie

      While popular with Steampunk afficianados, the Sherlock Holmes movies actually take place in victorian england, not an alternate reality, so I wouldn't personally consider them SP. However, they do take some liberties with the technology of the time, so it appeals.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • SherwoodOR

      I have always disagreed with the characterization of Jules Verne as "Steam Punk" too. Mr. Verne looked forward with what he had. He looked forward, not back.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  15. Greycat

    Imagine what the world would be like if Europe had not gone through the dark ages...

    December 14, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  16. Ray Cirino

    I love the look, but what's the end game on sustainability. We have no more time to decorate with shinny objects that don't create more energy than it took to make them. Sorry to pop your bubble. Check out real sustainable art on youtube under dragon oven.

    December 14, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  17. Bernaisen

    Just glue some gears on it and call it steampunk. This video talks about what is steampunk and what is a not.

    December 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • A N

      LOVE THAT!!!! Thank you!!!! As I mentioned, I am a true tinkerer at heart and was saddened when I found out what "Steampunk" REALLY was!!!! I hoped I would find some kindred souls but alas, there were none. Only Cosplay people. 🙁

      December 15, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  18. Matt DuPlessie

    For some real steampunk adventure in New England, check out 5 Wits' hour long, walk-though group experience called 20,000 Leagues. It's a hands-on puzzle solving adventure exploring Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus. And it's currently hosting a steampunk art exhibit put together by Bruce Rosenbaum, as mentioned in this article. More info on 5 Wits is available on their website,

    December 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  19. Jonathan Laden

    Very very nice steampunkery!

    December 14, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  20. Jye

    Or the flying train from Back to the Future 3, is a good example as well.

    December 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  21. Death Mercury

    How come I can sound of on something trivial but I can't sound off on taxes? Censorship perhaps?

    December 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • adb8917

      How about if you're simply off topic? The real world intrudes in enough other places that like any role playing game, you get busted for bringing in topics and toys that aren't anachronistic in the first place. This is a playful subject that's close enough in an absolute historical sense that lets the role player add historical and intellectual elements that doesn't require absolutely fantastical leaps into the realms of Arthurian legend, Greek mythology, or spending an evening at the Sign of the Prancing Pony. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) Why not keep it that way? Would you hold forth on tax policy on a Civil War Re-enactors site? No offense or insult intended, but if you want to debate taxes and the ills of the world, there are many different forums that will welcome you. Either that or introduce a Victorian-era Steampunk tax collector....

      December 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  22. JP Trout

    Steampunk: When Goths Discovered Brown!

    December 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  23. badcyclist

    The advantage of steampunk "inventions" is that they don't need to work. They are art projects, not real gadgets.

    Even the truly inventive ones are mashups– gadgets other people invented adorned with pseudo-Victorian trimmings that are tacked on for purely aesthetic reasons.

    December 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  24. Rockgin

    "Steampunk" = yet another annoying and overly pretentious niche that clogs and hogs, usurps and regurgitates...

    December 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Clogs what? Hogs what? Usurps what? Regurgitates what?
      Someone so in love with his own words should do a better job of explaining his point of view rather than simply spewing it in a way that leaves those guessing who do not share his cranial cavity.
      When last I looked, pop culture was not a broom closet. Space is not limited. You are not required to enjoy it.

      December 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Steve O

      A world that adhered to what you deem worthy of merit would be a bleak landscape of strip malls, fast food, and Michael Bay regurgitations.

      December 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
      • Jonathan Laden

        Good invertors borrow, great inventors steal!

        December 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  25. Dinosaur1972

    GRS62, the most obvious example of a steampunk movie is Wild Wild West (and yes, even steampunks know that movie sucked ... but the gadgetry was cool). My favorite television example was "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne" that (sadly) lasted only one season.

    December 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  26. guy smilie

    I once looked at a picture of a couple of people and a contraption which was labeled as "steampunk", and I immediately knew what it meant and could relate. Some people just get it. Some dont. Not every niche is for everyone or meant to be understood by all.

    BTW, the adult toy thing sounds kind of cool.

    December 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  27. The Real Bristol Palin

    I wonder what some steampunk battery operated adult toys might look like?

    December 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  28. Tanker

    Its simple, Steam Punk is when your neighbor's kid plays with your radiator....

    December 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  29. GRS62

    After reading this entire article I still have no clue as to what or who Steampunk is.

    December 14, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Fondue

      Good to know I'm not the only one who thought this!

      December 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • MrBo

      Steampunk is a what, not a who. It is an alternate Science-Fiction and/or Fantasy universe where steam power became the prevalent source of energy. It is usually depicted in an alternate version of Victorian Britain and the US Wild West.

      It's just a setting. It is very popular among some fantasy, science fiction and "comic book" fans, and is usually a popular source for cos-play in conventions. Cos play is the art of dressing up following the style and/or customs of a particular setting, be it comic-book universes, science-fiction universes, fantasy universes, Steampunk, etc

      December 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
      • Fondue

        Thank you! 🙂

        December 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
      • GRS62

        Thanks MrBo- Great, simple explanation without the sarcasm of some posts. I appreciate it and now I've learned something. CNN – You should have done it right in the first place.

        December 15, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Bill

      Imagine all the technological wonders we have today, only done in 18th century technology. Like a person above put it, similar to the gadgets they had in the movie Wild Wild West.

      December 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      The easiest way to explain: the future imagined in the Victorian era as an alternate reality.

      December 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • SherwoodOR

      Yeah, this article is a bit limited in its content. But, Google can certainly turn up some more in-depth information for you.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm |