Kinetic Steam at Work


I took the picture above at Maker Faire today, at a display by a group called Kinetic Steam Works, which uses coal-powered steam engines to power various devices. This shot captures the steam, certainly, but also the kinetics (the moving wheel, blurred with speed), and also work, a belt conveying energy to machines.

And more broadly, it’s a nice bit of synecdoche for Maker Faire in general. Maker Faire calls itself the largest DIY festival in the world, and I believe it, but it’s about more than just learning to do it yourself. Maker Faire is a celebration of an old ideal – the idea that we shouldn’t be mere consumers, that we should produce the things we need, or at least be able to tinker with them, to fix them when they break, and to improve them when they fall short of our needs.

Thus, a steam engine is turned to 21st century tasks.
Thus, creative minds design and manufacture PCR machines that cost $500 a piece, enough to bring molecular biology within reach of the home hobbyist. And hobbyists gather to create a collaborative workspace, where molecular biology and biotechnology can be a weekend pursuit, as computers were for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Thus, clothing designers gather with sewing neophytes to teach them to turn discarded t-shirts into new fashion.

Thus, bicycles are used to power the amps on a soundstage.

Thus, rocketry enthusiasts and balloon photography enthusiasts teach children to dream of the skies, and the 21st century’s Jacques Cousteau is tempted by the promises of a team designing a cheap, DIY robotic submarine.

It’s an inspiring vision, in which the self-made tradition that built America, and that built the technological world, is revived, reinvented, and reinterpreted. There’s tremendous power in those gatherings, tremendous work being done, but like the belt in the picture above, we don’t know, and can’t know yet, where that work is being directed.

But no movement that can produce a rideable trilobite could possibly lead anywhere bad.



  1. #1 Anthony McCarthy
    May 22, 2011

    They didn’t happen to have a good $500 clavichord there, did they?

  2. #2 cphlewis
    May 25, 2011

    They had superb computer driven laser-cutters with which you — you! — might be able to design a $500 clavichord, Anthony! That would be a delight.

    (Good wood is getting really expensive, but precision small-run cutting is getting cheap.)