Here in Troy, we’ve always liked to make things. During the mid-19th century, Henry Burden invented a horse shoe making machine that made Troy the largest manufacturer of horse shoes for the Union Army during the Civil War. He also invented a multi-story water wheel to power his iron works. It was the inspiration for RPI graduate Robert Ferris, who later built the first Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Exhibition.
William and Louis Gurley, brothers who both were alumni of RPI, established the W&LE Gurley Company in 1845, manufacturing precision instruments. Their company continues to this day, and was responsible for many innovations in surveying, measuring and other incredibly detailed and precise instrumentation. Troy’s Meneely Bell Company cast some of the finest bells in the world, most of which are still ringing somewhere.
Hannah Montague invented the detachable collar and cuff in 1825, launching an industry in Troy that outlasted the iron and steel manufacturing, and continued well into the 20th century. Textile related industries soon dominated Troy, resulting in the large factories along River Street and elsewhere in the city.
Today, we still make stuff here in Troy – from the products of the Ross Valve Company, to video games, to the innovative fungus packing materials at Ecovative Design, and much more. We are a city of Makers, perhaps best expressed large and architecturally at the newly restored Quackenbush Building downtown, now home to the Tech Valley Center of Gravity. There members can tinker and invent even more ways to create cool stuff, becoming the Gurley or Burden of tomorrow.
Which brings us to Steampunk and Troy.
Steampunk combines Victorian-era technology, clothing and culture with modern inventions and know-how. It began as a genre of science fiction writing, but soon took hold as a cultural phenomenon, with the appropriate clothing, wild inventions, and imaginative world-building.
For a generation raised with plastic electronic devices in hand almost at birth, there is something wonderfully nostalgic and inventive about retreating into a world of steam powered machines, with visible gears and gleaming copper and brass, where you can see how everything works together. Steampunk has inspired popular fiction and movies, home décor, clothing, and all kinds of individual inventions.
In a steampunk world, the past blends with the present and future. Even the costume is a nod to nostalgia. The impracticality of tight fitting, formal late 19th century clothing is modified in ways that would have horrified the prudish Victorians, but make for a fun, sexy and creative way to indulge in your inner Lord or Lady Adventurer. A true Steampunker does not lay around in costume; they are actively in the middle of a Great Adventure.
All of this would not have been possible without the writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and other 19th century writers. They inadvertently invented the genre of science fiction, creating worlds and characters that were decades, even centuries ahead of their time. We’ve all grown up with their stories – Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which gave us Captain Nemo and his fabulous submarine, the Nautilus.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is another famous Verne novel, made into a new movie every 20 years or so, and the subject of countless spin-offs and variations.
What about H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds? It’s one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time, the subject of a world-wide radio scare in the 1930s, and at least three or four motion pictures. The basic plot has been used over and over, to varying degrees of success ever since. Wells’ tripods and the defeat of the aliens through our bacteria and viruses are the inspiration for alien invasion stories of all kinds. It was genius.
Verne’s Nautilus submarine is Steampunk heaven, and so is H.G. Well’s first successful novel The Time Machine, which was published in 1895. It’s the story of an inventor who loses his wife, and invents a time machine so that he can go back and prevent her death. He fails, but in the process, ends up going far into the future to a dystopian world centuries past world destroying wars, where the only people who are left are the Eloi – gentle humans who live simply with nature on the surface, and the Morlocks, a subterranean semi-human species who live beneath the earth, who regard the Eloi as their own herds of food.
Like most great science fiction, the novel is really a treatise on the social and human conditions of Wells’ day, as well as a ripping adventure story. The story was made into at least two major motion pictures. The first was in 1960, and the second in 2002. The later one was set in New York, not London, where the book is set, and starred Australian actor Guy Pierce.
The film makers wanted to shoot the beginning Victorian scenes in an authentic setting, on streets that looked like Victorian New York City. They ended up upstate, shooting scenes in Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Troy. If you watch the movie, you’ll recognize our fair city streets.
An iconic steampunk-style movie with scenes shot in downtown Troy. Troy, a city with a 200 plus year history of making stuff. A fun and inventive genre and lifestyle that celebrates the Maker in us all. Put them together – Troy, Steampunk, Makers – what do you have?
Troy’s Enchanted City Festival – a Celebration of Steampunk! This Saturday, August 27, in downtown Troy.
This is the third year of the festival, which gets bigger and more involved each year. They always have local vendors selling all kinds of stuff, and this year, like last year, I’ll be there hawking my wares.
I’m doing the Fair with my friend Debii, a fantastic artist who creates works that fit right into the grand tradition of Steampunk. You have to see (and BUY!) her figures, framed works, jewelry and headpieces. They are unique, and created with found objects, especially watch parts, sculpted and wired together with the skill and beauty of a true Maker. Deb's work can be found here: www.jennysparrowworks.com.
I’m a Maker too, but my palette and medium is fabric. This year I’m selling scarves, mitts, handbags and pillows. You should buy this stuff too! I’ve got some great and unusual fabrics, including some Troy prints. They are all made here in Troy, by me, slaving away over a hot machine. That’s a Troy tradition too, but I have it much better than the incredibly hardworking ladies of old, sweating over a hot iron.
So – come on down and see us. Our booth will be on River Street. The Farmer’s Market will be up and running too, as will the Troy Flea Market. There will be an additional food market, a Maker’s area, contests and all kinds of fun stuff throughout the day in various locations downtown. Steampunk devotees will be showing off their costumes, and it’s another chance to dress up in Victorian costume in Troy and look perfectly normal. I love this city!
More information about the festival can be found at www.enchantedcitytroy.com.
More stories about Troy’s history and architecture are coming in the near future. Please like and follow me on my professional page on Facebook - Suzanne Spellen, freelance writer.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.