Austin is home to several active Steampunk groups. There is the Austin Steampunk Society, Texas Steampunks, Texas Steampunk, and Airship Isabella. Each group have their own unique activities, but also crossover with each other to participate in bigger events. In fact, to an outsider, figuring out who is who, and where, can be confusing, so S. J. sat down (for an e-mail chat) with Texas Steampunks founder Admiral J. Wilhelm, a. k. a. Johannes Wilhelm Dunn, to shed further light on Steampunk in The Lone Star state. S. J. wanted me to disclose that she first became acquainted with the Admiral during the SPB’s initial call for submissions, and was thrilled when he and his fellow compatriot, Arvis, shared their wonderful inventions and experiences at the Steampunk Bible Book Release Party at the U. S. Arts Authority.
SJC: How did you get into Steampunk?
JW: In real life, I’m an unemployed Masters in Aerospace Engineering (graduate Univ. Texas at Austin). I’m using Steampunk to keep my sanity so to speak (by employing a type of controlled insanity) in this very harsh time for me (bankruptcy and closing two businesses in 2009). I entered the Steampunk world around Sept 2009, and actually started by building “Calculation Engines” (computers) in Steampunk style. Mostly I started with electronics like PC’s and watches but now I have moved to include “wearables” such as bracelets and jewelry.
As a background to all my devices, I made up a little story, and I fantasize about writing my own novel, or co-writing with someone. Being an aeronautical engineer I had to pick something along the lines, so I chose to be a young airship Captain in the United States Airship Command (like the US Air Force) during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
SJC: And who is this young airship Captain in the US Airship Command?
JW: Johannes Wilhelm Dunn was way too young to be a captain during the Civil War, but he made his name by participating in the important capture of the Confederate Airship CSAA Alamo, over Mexican airspace. At the time (in real life), the American Union forces supported the republican government of the Mexican President-in-exile Benito Juarez, while the Confederate forces supported the Imperial government of Maximilian I, an Austrian prince invited by the Mexican nobility to create a “Second Empire” in Mexico during the French occupation. (This whole part about Mexican history and the Civil War is all true and accurate by the way! Google it!).
In an alternate timeline, the United States and the Confederate States commonly used Airships above the Mexican desert to carry, provide, and support troops which had spilled into Mexican territory, as the Civil War was much more intense than in real life. Of course both American sides had “secret weapons.” The CSAA Alamo was an ultra high-tech rigid airship in the shape of a whale, with functional ventral and dorsal fins, and capable of rapid maneuverability, speed, and extreme altitudes with a pressurized cabin. Hence, to the Union, the Alamo was a “high value target,” (somewhat similar to the submarine in the novel/movie Hunt for Red October). After commandeering the Alamo, Wilhelm rechristened the vessel “United States Airship Orca,” and the vessel was retrofitted for scientific research, as it was no longer of significant use during the Indian Wars.
After the war, Wilhelm, still holding the scientific vessel USAS Orca, was progressively promoted to Admiral, and during the Reconstruction era he “retired” from bellicose efforts (during the Indian War period, 1880’s), but now with control of the United States Office of Atmospheric Research, a scientific research division of the US Airship Command (equivalent to the US Air Force). During the late 1880’s the entire Office of Atmospheric Research, essentially a flying laboratory, was fitted into the USAS Orca, and Wilhelm directed discovery expeditions and occasionally covert military surveillance missions over the Arctic Ocean and North Pole (same role as 20th century submarines in Arctic waters). This is the period when flying, magnetically levitated “Pigmy Kraken” were discovered in the lower Stratosphere (above 30,000 ft.). That’s why I make all these copper squids you see in my website….
Like I said, Controlled Insanity!
SJC: Steampunk is alive and well in Austin, in fact there are three or four active groups. Would you mind clarifying for me, and for our readers, who and what those groups are?
JW: There are 3 separate groups in Austin with some members attending more that one group, and in some cases all three. I should tell you I have not participated yet in the Austin Steampunk Society meetings yet, as this is a separate group from mine.
My group falls under the “Texas Steampunks, a.k.a. Texas Steampunks at ning.com (formerly Seaholm Steam and Diesel at livejournal.com), which is kind of hard to distinguish from the Austin Steampunk Society on Facebook. And to confuse matters worse, there is another Facebook group called “Texas Steampunk” (notice singular “steampunk” not “steampunks”), which now started the brand new texas-steampunk.com self-hosted website.
I’m hoping the latter self-hosted site will take over all groups and eliminate the ning, Facebook, and livejournal forums, but you will see participation at the new website, texas-steampunk.com, has just barely started.
So to summarize, the three groups are: a) Texas Steampunks (our group and oldest group I believe); b) Austin Steampunk Society; c) Texas Steampunk (newest).
A “fourth” group would be “Airship Isabella,” a local for-hire travelling troop of actors who play the role of “Airship Pirates,” but I don’t know whether to consider them a separate forum (airshipisabella.com). They mostly attend various major and minor events around the country.
I figure the three groups will join together at some point, (although I’ll try to push for a different moniker other than Austin Steampunk Society, if you consider the resulting acronym!).
SJC: And what does each group do in the way of activities, and where could interested persons find you all?
JW: The activities of Texas Steampunks should be viewed at three levels:
At the first level (me and others at ning.com) essentially cover informal biweekly meetings, at a local cafe (Epoch cafe near the University of Texas campus), where we discuss current issues, share tips and artwork, and generally plan to take over the world by way of merciless Steampunk domination (ha, ha! Just joking). We have gadget makers, artists and general folk dressing up as topics of discussion.
The second level is a monthly participation in a South Austin event called “First Thursday,” essentially a stroll for the general public around the trendy/artsy/hippie district of South Congress Ave., or “SoCo” as the locals call it, see. And in that event we dress up in full Victoriana and stroll up and down South Congress among the Antique Stores, Artisan Shops, and open markets. This is the best identifiable and most unique feature of Texas Steampunks, I think, much like our UK counterparts who participate in city-wide events.
In the same second level, we also have monthly or so meetings at a local tavern (Opal Divine’s in South Austin), organized by Samara Tyler, the owner of “The Mysterium,” a Steampunk shop in South Austin. The event is usually a costuming and mechanical showcase as much as a social gathering. This event has proved more useful to bring all three groups together, and I’m surprised how a trip to the pub can grease the gears and sprockets of Steampunk participation!!! This is where you see most “cross-pollination” between the groups, with exception of the “Third Level” of activities.
The third level of participation is attending a few yearly events, like for example a myriad of “sub-events” during Austin’s famous “South by Southwest” (SXSW) music festival every March, or so.
For example, “Big Bang Bordello,” (a live music and *ahem* old-fashioned burlesque show with a Steampunk theme) took place as part of SXSW at a venue called Emo’s in the 6th St. District of Austin, and I saw steamed and non-steamed people from around the world (attracted by SXSW) flood the venue among them some of our members. Really, at this event, I saw many Steampunks or Steampunk wannabe’s whom I have never seen before.
Also, a yearly event (this time coinciding also with SXSW) is the annual Steampunk Ball at a dance/live music venue known as Elysium, also in the 6th Street District. The event usually has costuming contests, although I will confess that no waltzes were danced at all, regrettably (and I do mean regrettably as I seem to be the only one trained in ballroom dancing!).
And last but not least is, in the third level, of course, participation at the local conventions and large events, like “Green Steam Circus” around May last year, and San Antonio’s Steampunk convention, “Aetherfest,” which just took place simultaneously to The Steampunk Bible release, thus, unfortunately robbing some attendance to the latter.
SJC: Thank you, Admiral, it was a pleasure, and thank you for coming out to the release.
For more information on Austin and Texas Steampunk, you can peruse the following:
Texas Steampunk (that’s sans “s”).
Images were taken by Sam Marx of Third Space Photo in Austin, TX, and are used with his permission.
The above origins story of Admiral J. Wilhelm is © 2011, John William Dunn. All rights Reserved.