The antique collector
"I sometimes get some flack from folks for 'destroying' irreplaceable antiques," says Steampunk stalwart Jake Von Slatt. "To this I say antiques have value for two main reasons: they give us a connection to the culture that created them, and they have monetary value in the marketplace. There's no doubt that singular handcrafted works of artists and craftsmen demand preservation, because they give us unique information about past cultures. However, since vintage mass-manufactured goods hold little unique cultural information, they have value only in the marketplace."
Von Slatt is a leading light in the Steampunk movement. His creations have graced plenty of publications over the past few years, from Wired to the Financial Times. However, Von Slatt didn't realise that he was considered a Steampunk icon until he found out what the term meant.
REAR VIEW: The back of Von Slatt's Victorian PC is as decorative as the front and includes a brass fan
"I think, like a lot of people, I didn't get into Steampunk," he says. "I just discovered that there was a name for something I've always been passionate about. The elements that feed into this passion are a long-term interest in technology in general, particularly the history of technology and the Industrial Revolution, combined with a love of science fiction and a personal desire – a need – to make stuff with my hands."
One of Von Slatt's Steampunk creations is his Victorian All-in-One PC, which wouldn't look out of place on a nineteenth-century gentleman scientist's writing desk. The project started when Von Slatt spotted a 24in widescreen monitor for just $299.
After cutting the case down to size, he then attached a sturdy aluminium plate to it and fixed a Pentium IV motherboard, a 350-Watt power supply, a DVD player and a 250GB SATA disk drive onto that. The polished black base on which the entire PC stands began life as an old ornament display stand and came from the town dump.
The rest of the stand became the frame for the screen. To this he added a lattice of brass sidepieces, as you'll find detailed in his extensive build notes at www.steampunkworkshop.com.
After fashioning a rear panel from perforated aluminium, giving the whole computer a suitable paint job and adding a Steampunked keyboard and mouse from previous projects, the PC was complete.
Although the result looks stunning, Von Slatt says that he's not entirely happy with it. "It's interesting that you mention the All-in-One," he says, "as I'm not particularly pleased with it. I find it overwrought and inelegant – but perhaps that makes it particularly Victorian! In any case, it's up for a 'redo' when I have the time."
Von Slatt has created a large range of other Steampunk items, from a redesigned electric guitar to his unique Morse code sounder, which taps out RSS feeds using the open-source Morse2LED package. Does he have a favourite piece from his unusual collection?
"Nope," he says paradoxically. "In fact, I care very little for the objects I make – certainly no more than I would for an un-modded keyboard or guitar. What I treasure is the time I spend creating them. That's what I crave far more than the results of my labours."
Creating your own Steampunk case mod
Von Slatt's advice to budding Steampunk case modders is to get stuck in and have a go. Of his own work, he admits that: "If you get up close, you can definitely see some warts, partially due to my own laziness, but also due to the fact that what I'm trying to create is objects that have their own alternative histories. Go looking for examples of things from the nineteenth century that bear a resemblance [to the object you're modding]. If you're modding a monitor, think about vanity mirrors, pictures and windows. For example, my inspiration for the All-in-One was a theatre stage."
Your imagination is as important as a steady stream of junk when seeking inspiration. "I'm not trying to create a brand-new Victorian PC," adds Von Slatt. "I'm trying to create the PC that a nineteenth century time traveller brought back from his Steampunk-style future. Another starting point can be based on your materials – go looking in junk shops and in the rubbish for something that catches your fancy, such as an old treadle sewing machine base or a radio cabinet."
"The build will be driven by an inspiration from something you saw," agrees Overton, "whether it was an old piece of junky equipment or a prop in a movie. If you're going to mod an existing computer then you could start with a simple case mod project. Try dressing the case with Steampunk fittings – loads of brass pipes, pressure gauges and valves. There's a lot of good Steampunk case mod work out there."
Indeed there is – the Internet positively bristles with intriguing, fanciful case mods full of gleaming metal. One example is a mysterious Steampunk case mod that began causing a stir in the community late in 2007.
Posted to the forum at Mod Planet, the case seems to be a water-cooled computer in a wooden case that's designed to look as if it's been pulled straight out of the pages of a Jules Verne novel. Gauges and dials bristle down its front panel and at the bottom is a small furnace that seems to power the whole contraption.
Tubes and valves apparently regulate the coolant flow and there's even a porthole to see what appears to be the machine's clockwork innards. All that's currently known about the enigmatic creator of this work is that he goes by the username Korko Czong and is either Polish or Russian.
Though this is thought to be an entirely functional modern PC masquerading as a steampowered mechanical one, it's clearly not necessary to make Steampunk creations entirely functional. In this upside-down world, imagination is just as important.
First published in PC Plus Issue 281
If you liked this, why not check out 10 really cool steampunk keyboard mods
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register