The Steampunk World

Being the continued explorations of a living steampunk.

The steampunk world is all around us, lying just out of sight, in a continuous thread of steampunk builders and culture that extends from the Victorian era to the present. You'll find no science fiction here: This is real life steampunk.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Here are pictures of a pedal-powered crane I made, at use in Redmoon's "Looptopia". Most of the parts came from Northern Tool's ATV supplies:  The wheels & stub axles, with the front axle being their go-kart axle with differential.  This vehicle is front-wheel-drive, rear-steer.

My friend Pickles made the armature.  I don't know who added the sound system for this particular show.

I geared it way down because the original designs called for it to carry about 800 lbs.  Theoretically you could add another set of pedals for the passenger.  See also the steering chain.

I had to fabricate my own stub axle brackets.

The whole event was kinda steampunk:

See more pictures here:

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Elgin Watchworks and the Fox River Trolley Museum

Location: Elgin, Illinois

Elgin watches began as railroad watches, right after the Civil War.  At the time precision was becoming increasingly important to prevent train collisions.  Eventually Elgin took over the middle-range pocketwatch market.

Recently I took a pennyfakething ride along the Fox River Trail, which connects Aurora (home of Wayne's World), Elgin, and Geneva.  It runs along the river and connects the third leg of the old CA&E electric interurban:

Batavia was the home of a giant windmill factory:

Geneva was a mill town with the Danford Reaper and Mower factory, later drummed out of business by McCormick (which became International, whose strikes were the cause of the Haymarket Riots... interestingly enough the deputy sheriff of Geneva during the Danford era was a young Allan Pinkerton, who would later found the company that McCormick used against the strikers.  Pinkertons were also suspected of being agent provocateurs who threw the bomb that killed the cops that got the martyrs hung... a rich story in and of itself.  But you begin to see these mill towns' role in the beginning of the labor movement).

Aurora's biggest employer was the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (later Burlington Northern) which was headquartered in Aurora. The CB&Q Roundhouse is still standing, and is now the popular restaurant Walter Paytonís Roundhouse.

Elgin, of course, had the watchworks,dominated by a clocktower bigger than Big Ben:

So you see there was a need for an interurban electric railroad to connect these towns to Chicago.  You can still ride the electric trolleys at the Fox River Trolley Museum, which is what I was there to do:

Riding down this river trail, you get a strong sense of the importance of the river to the industries of these towns;  they were once independent villages though Chicago has swallowed them whole.  Batavia and Aurora have embraced their industrial heritage, but unfortunately Elgin did not, and the watchworks fell into disrepair and were demolished in 1966:

What I wouldn't give to have dug around that place when it was abandoned!

Fortunately, though, they preserved the observatory that Elgin used to provide accurate time before the advent of national standards:

Take a close look at this ad.  In the first picture:  Women modestly dressed, horse and carriage, small buildings, big pocketwatch.  In the second:  Ankles exposed, automobile, skyscrapers, tiny wristwatch.  This is the future promised by the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

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Location: Illinois, USA

The most striking steampunk features of Chicago are its Elevated trains, museums, boulevards, and moving bridges.  All four come to us directly from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.  The Columbian Exposition may well have been the beginning of the end for the Victorian age- electricity was becoming common, inventions were transforming common lives, people were traveling at 80 mph in Pullman coaches to see a glorious White City displaying all the glory that the hope and innovation of the previous century had promised.  The future had arrived.

Chicago was rebuilt for the Fair.  The boulevards and Elevated were modeled on Paris and decorated with newfangled "con-crete" sculptures and glorious riveted wrought iron.  The Science and Industry museum is the remains of the White City- a plaster paradise encompassing Washington and Jackson parks.  Over a quarter of the U.S. population attended to be introduced to zippers, the ferris wheel, Cream of Wheat, Aunt Jemima, Juicy Fruit, picture postcards, carbonated soda, and a little local brew named Pabst that won the Blue Ribbon.  This was the birth of consumerism and the end of simplicity.

Let's take a look at what remains of that amazing event.

The Elevated

The El's construction began around 1870, with rail-based mass transit peaking in the 50s until GM bought up the red car (I bet you thought Roger Rabbit was fiction, didn't you?).  Some of the loop stations still have gorgeous wrought iron and vintage ads.  How can you not think steampunk with this thing roaring overhead all the time?

For more on the history of the Elevated, see:

The Museum

Little obsessed with the Greeks weren't they?

The Boulevards

They aren't much to look at, but they're wonderful to hang out on.  Apple trees were widely used as decoration.  And they're infested with parrots.

Why are there wild parrots in Chicago?  See:

The Bridges

Chicago has more moving bridges than any other city in the world.  At one time they numbered in the 60s, now they're in the 40s and dropping.  As a transportation hub Chicago not only sits on the Great Lakes but reversed the flow of its river and dug a canal across the continental divide, connecting the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of them are Trunion-Bascule bridges:

A mere 100hp motor lifts these giant, counterweighted bridges.

Some have the gearing up on top- that ridged, toothed semicircle is the "big" gear to the motor's "small" gear:

(This Cortland bridge was the first trunnion-bascule bridge ever built, and it's still there... for now)

R.I.P. North Avenue bridge, demolished last fall because no buyer could be found.

I was on my way to take some pictures of the insides of these bridges when my buddy fell into the bascule pit, breaking his leg.  I had to pull him out of there and postpone my picture-taking.  But I'll get photos- and movies- of the guts of these things when they lift.

This one is a vertical lift bridge, one of very few operational ones.  The bridgetender sits in the house and rides up and down.  This one goes up maybe five times a day in the summer.

side view:

I took this picture today, of Chicago as seen from the Amtrak locomotive barn next to a pair of very large truss-bascule bridges (one is up, one is down with a train going across it).

For more on Chicago's awesome bridges, see:

For a wonderful website about the Columbian Exposition, see:

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Bubbly Dynamics

Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA

Another warehouse I frequent is one in the Chicago Stockyards called Bubbly Dynamics.  Bubbly Dynamics has many air compressors.  How I love air compressors!

This is the one I use.  What a beauty!  Because Bubbly Dynamics used to be a  motorcycle pick-a-part, there are many dead motorcycles lying about.  That is why this air compressor has a Harley Davidson "Screamin' Eagle" air filter.  Look at that V-twin!

This one is made from an old Hercules, the classic farm workhorse engine.

Check out the dashboard:

This is a modern, $20,000 air compressor.  My, how design has suffered.  Boo!

Here's another kind of air compressor.  Guess where this one's from!

Visit it!

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A Selection From The Estate Of My Unnamed Employer

Location: Chicago

I am in the employ of a gentleman of age and wealth.  Alongside the various sullied tasks I render for him at rock-bottom prices, I am restoring his tandem Teetor railbike and he is my mentor in steam engine restoration and firing.

My Unnamed Employer is very cautious, for reasons you will understand I'm sure.  He is not a famous person unless you are into certain obscure aspects of Victoriana, in which case I'm sure you will respect discretion.  He would never allow me to take pictures willy-nilly, however, he *is* eager to share what he has with the world.  Let's take a look around, shall we?  What can we find...

Of obvious interest is the steamshop.  Naturally, everything in the steam shop is nonfunctional, because everything that works is in use (be patient and I will get some live steam posted here).

This boiler is getting blue-metal sheeting, there's a piece of it on the backside.

I like my punk steamy and my steam punky.

Guess what it is and you win a chance to sand off all the rust.

On to the stable.  My Employer is an enthusiastic wheelman, and has provided me with an ordinary that I may accompany him and his lady (onetime world women's highweeler champion).  These ordinaries are all in excellent working condition and are ridden often (except, of course, for the one that is missing its handlebars).

Bicycle enthusiasts will note the old thick chain, the adustable pedal settings, and the amazing front suspension. I don't know how old this is but I know the Master doesn't go past 1918 and the advent of pneumatics. Modern, soft-bottomed pish-posh by those members of the fairer sex who can't take a cobblestone road like a man!

The master, how he loves his pipe organ collection!  Personally I think he is a madman.  That wall in the background is stacked to the ceiling with pipes!

Now, I know Mr. Edison is not a popular man in this forum.  I understand why, and I have the deepest respect for Mr. Tesla.  However, we cannot dismiss the advances Mr. Edison made in such fields as dog-shocking, and anyway it wasn't HIS death ray that caused the Tunguska incident.  I digress- at any rate I hope you will not hold the contents of these photographs against me or my Employer:

A curious item indeed from Mr. Edison's lab.  It is definitely made from Edison projector parts.  It seems like an attempt at an early motion picture camera.  The door locks- a quaint reminder of the secrecy of the times.

A selection of kinetiscopes.

Number sixty-two!

Due to the nature of this collection, visits must be arranged in advance. Please email me at payphone at primate dot net if you are seriously interested.

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Butler Street Foundry

Here is another place I like to hang around, in Bridgeport.  A Steampunk contraptionist often finds oneself in need of various metal goods cast, cut, forged, or punched.  For this I go to the Butler Street Foundry.

Butler Street Foundry was established in 1891.  After WWII, iron pouring was ceased due to new environmental regulations and the foundry turned to ironworking.  A few years back the third-generation owner retired and sold the business to a man who had been blacksmithing there for 10 years.  The new owner opened up the sealed pattern shop and we have been restoring the old machinery and setting the shop back up.  Local art students come and cast aluminum and brass, while the owner is trying to bring this 120 year old business into the artistic/restoration/renovation scene.  The coal-fired forge is used to do custom iron when the work can be found.  The owner is very interested in preserving vintage metalworking methods, however, it is very hard to find anyone under 50 who is into this stuff.  My role here is thus that of an apprentice, learning everything I possibly can.

Here is the main floor, where 50-ft beams are broken.  Never has the difference between mass and weight been so apparent than when a giant i-beam is swinging from the overhead crane, weightless but not massless.

Originally all power tools were fed via flatbelt from overhead, with a central steam engine providing the power.  Now only these few pulleys remain as a reminder of how fortunate we are to have outlets everywhere.

The Blacksmith's Shop

While I enjoy watching pours, my own interest is in the area of blacksmithing.

Flatbelt Triphammers

Butler still uses three of its original triphammers, all Little Giants.  As you can see they have been converted to electricity:



100lbs- a real floorshaker

Here you can see the very same tools in use back in the day.  Check out the overhead belts and the fact that a horse is patiently awaiting its shoes.

See a video of the 50-lb in use.  Watch your fingers!

Here are some very fine handmade tools, approximately 100 years old.  The craftsmanship is incredible.

The Pattern Shop

The foundry used to employ woodworkers to make the original boiler parts and gears that would then be cast in steel.  Some of the woodworking here is incredible.  The walls are stacked with these wooden originals- flues, manholes, pulleys, gears, flagpole bases, pretty much anything needed.  I've even found the originals for parts they cast for their own machinery, still in use out on the floor.  What a lost art!

Wow, the old night watchman's clock!  He would have had to use keys hanging around the property to prove he made his rounds, and his supervisor would retrieve a little punched slip of paper from within the clock.

Gas Hit-n-miss Engines

A hit-n-miss is a wonderful engine.  It only has one piston, and that piston only fires when it needs to.  So rather than the chugachuga of a four-cylinder engine, its one piston is fired when the flywheel slows to a certain speed and you just hear a POPF! now and then.  These are gasoline fueled, and some hit'n'misses even used mason jars as fuel tanks.  They provide power via a flatbelt PTO.

Hit'n'miss sawmill:

A smaller stationary engine:

Here you see the centrifugal clutch.  The spinning motion keeps the little fobs extended.  When the speed slows and the fobs drop, the piston (at right) is fired.

Butler Street is a wonderful part of Chicago industrial history!

Visit it!

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