Queen Victoria's gadgets: Tech gear for the steampunk set

Charles Darwin meets Steve Jobs: Get an eyeful of the devices that blend 19th- and early 20th-century styles with 21st-century tech

steampunk gadgets

All steamed up

We take for granted that new computers, phones, and tablets will be smaller and sleeker than their predecessors. Not so in the realm of steampunk, where up-to-date devices look like antiques.

With roots in '60s science fiction, steampunk has become a multiple-arts movement based on the whimsical notion that the era of steam power continues. In the realm of tech gadgets, that means trading black plastic cases and chrome accents for brass, leather, and finely finished wood surfaces.

From a printer that looks like a stock ticker to a USB memory key made with watch parts, every steampunk device straddles centuries. Here are some of our favorites, including both products for sale and one-of-a-kind masterworks.

von Slatt steampunk keyboard
Jake von Slatt

A keyboard for President McKinley

Jake von Slatt's keyboard is a classic among steampunk projects, with every detail looking like it was plucked from an 1890s hardware store. He started by stripping a vintage 1980s IBM Model M keyboard to the basics, then put in a perforated black felt mat and glued on key caps cannibalized from two antique typewriters.

Using a combination of old-school handwork and modern power tools, Jake made the device's elegant brass frame, intricately machined side inserts, and matching tripod feet. All told, it is such a work of industrial art that it seems a shame to pound on it when typing an email.

Dave Veloz steampunk Mac Mini
Dave Veloz

Susan B. Anthony's desktop system

The ultimate steampunk computer, Dave Veloz' masterpiece is based on an off-the-shelf Apple Mac Mini computer. Veloz stashed the system's electronics in a custom-painted metal box that looks like a Victorian cookie tin, adding a tiltable brass-trimmed LCD frame with a carved wood and marble base.

He made his own von Slatt-style keyboard and added a cool digital clock made from a Chinese box topped with flickering vacuum nixie tubes. The work of several months, Veloz finished the Mini steampunk system just in time to use it to display photos of him and his bride at their wedding reception.

Twittertape Machine
Adam Vaughan

Tickertape tweets

One of the most ingenious steampunk accessories is the Twittertape Machine. Made to look like a stock ticker that could have sat on Andrew Carnegie's desk, the machine consists of a thermal printer hidden beneath period gears and mechanical rollers scavenged from broken clocks, all housed under a glass dome.

Built from scratch by Adam Vaughan, the one-off prototype spits out a ribbon of tweets instead of the current price of U.S. Steel or Standard Oil. Rather than a telegraph line, the Twittertape Machine gets its data from the Internet via an Ethernet port, checking for new tweets twice a minute.

Oil PC Steampunk Media Immersion Computer
James Onscotch

Media PC, 19th-century style

James Onscotch's elaborate Oil PC Steampunk Media Immersion Computer started life as an Asus motherboard with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 processor, an Nvidia 8800GT video card, and a 320GB SATA hard drive. Built inside a clear plastic tank, the Ubuntu system is bathed in oil that runs through a cooler on top that resembles an old-fashioned radiator.

Trimmed in wood with brass supports, the case has switches, pipes, valves, and radio tubes, adding to the system's Industrial Revolution ambiance. On the other hand, its futuristic AeroCool temperature monitor screen makes the immersion PC look like it emerged from a rip in the fabric of techno-time.

Ozone Battery steampunk cellphone
Ivan Mavrović

Captain Nemo's cell phone

In addition to several eclectic watches and odd multipurpose pens, Zagreb artist Ivan Mavrović has made several steampunk-inspired cell phones. It took him two weeks to convert a Nokia handset into what appears to be a 19th-century Star Trek communicator: the Ozone Battery.

After adding an exoskeleton of aluminum and steel, he edged the frame with a spring and put a fisheye lens over the screen. He covered the numeric keys with small hex bolts, just about guaranteeing that you'll accidentally call someone. All this hardware doubles the size and weight of the phone, but it makes quite a statement when you answer a call.

Mechanical Memory Key No. 4 - steampunk USB drive
Rob Smith

USB key of the Belle Époque

Your data can go steampunk with Rob Smith's Mechanical Memory Key collection. Key No. 4, shown here, is made of Paduak wood and holds 16GB.

The eye is instantly drawn to the USB stick's collection of gears, levers, and brackets, which make it look more mechanical than electronic. Made of parts from six different period pocket watches, the elaborate works don't actually move, although the embedded rubies can give the appearance of motion when they catch the light.

It has a matching cap and an elegant brass-trimmed semicircular cutout for attaching to a keychain or necklace. Mechanical Memory Key No. 4 is no longer available, but Smith offers similar handcarved wood and clockwork memory keys (sans rubies) at his Etsy shop for $140.

Marquis Trackpad

A trackpad for the Gilded Age

With a case of either mahogany or dark walnut surrounded by polished brass trim, Datamancer's $400 Marquis Trackpad makes the ultimate steampunk desktop statement. The look is pure 19th-century luxe, with the choice of brown leather, black leather, or burgundy faux leather for the palm rest and either a semi-gloss or gloss finish.

It may not look it, but under the Marquis's skin is an off-the-shelf Apple Magic Trackpad; you can supply your own and reduce the price by $70. Datamancer also sells matching Marquis keyboards in beautifully etched brass (for $1,200) or aluminum (for $850).

Bug steampunk mouse
Jake Hildebrandt

Rube Goldberg's mouse

Channeling his creativity through his steampunk alter ego, Professor William C. Ravenscroft, Jake Hildebrandt built his first Bug mouse in his college dorm room with materials at hand. Made almost entirely of brass, the mouse's case has toilet-seat hinges for the buttons, a brass-plated corner plate from a steamer trunk for the wrist rest, and gears everywhere. Inside are the works from an ordinary USB optical mouse.

The original Bug weighed in at a whopping 1.6 lbs. -- not terribly practical to use, Hildebrandt admits -- which he has since whittled down to about 10-15 oz. (Each Bug he makes has somewhat different parts.)

Interested in having a Bug of your own for $300? Contact Hildebrandt for details.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Turn of the (20th) century laptop

The Kowal Portable Typewriter & Adding Machine #4 shows that fantasy and reality can coexist. It took Hugo Award-winning writer Mary Robinette Kowal a few hours to transform an off-the-shelf ThinkPad X61 into her steampunk ideal.

After covering the system's functional but boring keys with appliques that use a font reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish illustrations, she made wood inserts for the space bar, the Enter key, and specialty buttons. To finish the look, she covered the wrist rest and screen lid with marbled sticker paper that could have been ripped from a three-volume Victorian novel.

iVictrola steampunk iPad, iPhone dock
Old Time Computer

iPhone, meet the Jazz Age

With its prominent megaphone speaker horn from a 1920s radio, Old Time Computer's iVictrola marries 20th- and 21st-century technologies by acting as an iPad or iPhone dock and speaker. The large megaphone horn acoustically amplifies the i-device's audio output, filling a room with your favorite tunes without using any electricity.

The $499 iVictrola dock is custom-made, and you can order its base in a variety of hardwoods and finishes, including walnut, cherry, maple, oak, marble, or a rusty metallic finish. The craftsman, who goes by the handle Woodguy32, notes that he's currently battling cancer, so orders will be delayed.

steam pipe speakers
Eric Nelson / Ikyaudio

The sound of steampunk

Looking like they were stripped from a World War I submarine, Ikyaudio's Steam Pipe Speakers (no longer available for purchase) appear to be made of steel. Actually, designer Eric Nelson started with plastic PVC plumbing pipes that he glued together and hand lacquered.

In addition to a 3-in. magnesium/aluminum alloy speaker that can reproduce audio from 80 to 20,000 hertz, each speaker has a small bass port housed in a 1.5-in. pipe that protrudes at a 45-degree angle. The speakers have triangular wooden bases and connection posts in the back to hook up to a computer or stereo.

iPad on Underwood typewriter
Jack Zylkin / USB Typewriter

Typecasting the iPad

Got a tablet and an old typewriter? You can play Dr. Frankenstein, the ultimate steampunk practitioner, and breathe new life into each. Jack Zylkin's USB Typewriter Easy-Install Conversion Kit lets you transform an old mechanical typewriter into a stand and keyboard for your iPad or Android tablet. It'll also work as the keyboard for a Mac, Windows, or Linux PC.

The $79 kit's sensors, circuit board, and switches come customized for your particular typewriter -- from Corona to Underwood -- and the conversion takes about two hours to complete. The typewriter still works with paper, but you will have to use the carriage return at the end of each line.

steampunk keyboard keys
Scott Lyon

Steampunkify your keyboard

Scott Lyon's old-fashioned keyboard keys can turn your favorite keyboard into a steampunk icon. The keys may look 100 years old, but they're new. Each is a 1/8-in. thick wood disc topped with a paper applique printed with a character, word, or symbol in white and a faux silver trim.

The $20 set has 104 keys, including the essential Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and arrow keys, which look like they're from an antique street sign. Just remove the keys from your keyboard and glue the new (er, old) ones on.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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