The following is an excerpt from one of several conversations I had with mad scientist and creator Tom Sepe. Always a fascinating chap, we uncorked a bottle or two and tried to come to grips with the future of Steampunk and smashing things.
Tom Sepe, although born in paradisical New Jersey in 1971, was transplanted to the bleak and depressing West Coast in 1976. He grew up in the hustle and bustle of Moraga, California where he began tinkering at an early age.
"I remember Legos and my chemistry set as being fundamental to my early development, as well as fixing and modifying BMX bikes. I was also a voracious bookworm - loving science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy", and fantasy novels like "Lord of the Rings." Then there were the numerous plastic model sets that my friends and I would meticulously build and paint and systematically blow up with firecrakers and M-80's."
He also took to the stage in community theater productions at the age of 5. The intersection of arts and science have been a major avenue of exploration his whole life).
He's done lots of other things. It's crazy.
(Q= questioner, or inquistor, if you prefer. TS= Tom Sepe, and not T.S. Elliot. Although that would make a great interview, as well. Not terribly likely, though. Alas).
Q: Jake Von Slatt, SteamPunk's rather eloquent spokesperson, has called SteamPunk the marriage of technology and romance. I think that puts a pretty good handle on the thing, don't you?
TS: Yes. Except that I have a problem with "romance", just like I have a problem with "nostalgia".
Q: In that it could be viewed as "escapist"?
TS: It's less that. Take nostalgia: it's very dangerous. Sometimes I find myself getting nostalgic for a period in my life and think, "if I only had this", or "if only it was like that" and it's terrible. It's dangerous in that it draws us away from the present. It's not being present.
Romance, of course, is a different thing than nostalgia. A much better thing. But it, too, has a similar draw.
Q: I also suspect that it used to mean something else. Before there was Science Fiction there were the "Scientific Romances".
TS: Oh, yeah...
Q: And, of course, they would appear in nasty Penny Dreadfuls. They would invariably feature stories of miraculous steam engines built by boy geniuses roaming and destroying little bits of the American prarie-side.
TS: But let us address the critiques of SteamPunk. Not that I would even necessarily know exactly what they are. I'm by no means an expert. No one is.its not about that. It's a movement of people, each attacking form their own perspective. so when people say, "what is SteamPunk?" .... it's not any one thing. There's variations on the theme. There's people bringing their own ideas to it. so in some regards. to have someone throw a bunch of critique at SteamPunk is a little unfair. It's not like a hard party line; it's a bunch of people defining it for themselves.
Q: But as an interesting mental exercise, I have a feeling that the one person who might be able to take a shot at it might be you.
TS: I really just sort of wanted to open up the can of worms...
Q: Well... "escapist" is the foremost thing I would imagine being leveled at us.
TS: Or nostalgia, as I brought up earlier. For some bygone era were things were better than they are now, and people were better to each other than they are now, and things were simpler than they are now, la, la, la.... But that would be Neo-Victorianism. SteamPunk is not looking into the past, but the future. It's a contemporary idea.
Mostly, I've seen some backlash, largely due to there being some idea about "the SteamPunk lifestyle", that takes it into the realm of being a facade or pretension, or to where there's a sense of some kind of falsity. Even of classicism.
Q: You mean my fake English accent?
TS: (pointedly) Or, say... dressing like a dandy.
TS: So there's that critique. That it might feel too high-society. And I think that comes from a perceived exclusivity when people feel left out. It might not even be the case. You might just have someone who doesn't feel good about themselves saying, "here's somebody who has actually taken the time to make an outfit, and do something create, and reinvent their lives, and I'm not doing that, so that makes it bad." And so many begrudge or even attack others simply for being empowered. So fine. Bring it on. The people in the SteamPunk genre are empowering themselves.
And it's a DIY culture. There's nothing about the genre that says: you can't do this, or I'm withholding information from you. On the contrary, you can go to all these websites, all these blogs, and you can find out anything. Go to my website, I posted all of the pictures on how to build my bike for anyone to use or reproduce, should they choose to.
Moving on to "Disaster Testing":
TS: The bike (Steam Whirlygig), while it could be brought into some sort of compliance to make it street-legal, is not currently registered with the DMV. That's not to say I couldn't get away with riding it for a good long time before that might be made an issue.
Q: Can they even press that issue? Don't their rules pertain to gasoline-powered vehicles?
TS: No, their laws govern electrically or alternately powered vehicles, too. They do it by category of speed. Something under 25 MPH, for instance, might not even be considered a moped, but fall under the classification of "bicycle".
Q: But there do seem to be some loopholes to exploit left, yes? I think about the ultra-lite, or, more infamously, the "pago-jet" (a para-sail with a strap-on blower)...
TS: Those are small aircraft, or in the latter case, the pilot IS the aircraft, so the rules are blurrier. But both, minus windspeed, are only capable of 25 knots maximum, I would point out.
Q: Let's turn then, to your latest foray into Mad Science, the WhirlyGig!
TS: The chassis of my bike was originally a 1967 'tote-goat", one of the first off-road motorcycles, apparently. Gasoline powered Briggs and Stratton Engine with a pull stroke motor. Like a lawnmower... pull it to start it... and it had some kind of centrifugal pulley, so that when you revved the engine there were counter-weights inside the pulley that flew out as it would spin faster and that would grab the belt and make it go.
So I had the original chassis, and I was donated two other motorcycles at the time, one was another similar off road tote-goat sort of thing, and the other was a 1964 Honda off-road bike. So at the time I started, I had 3 motorcycles, and of them the one that became the WhirlyGig had the least promise. And yet that was the one I first did something with, because at the time, in 2006, a friend and I started to experiment with the idea of an electric motor. So I took that frame, and some electric motor we had laying around the house, or warehouse I should say, and we set it up with a glorified set of wires that acted as the switch. It was very primitive. And we did some disaster testing.
Q: Disaster testing?
TS: You crash it into things. And figure out why you had to crash.
Q: (laughs) Because you're doing Disaster Testing!
TS: It was "oh, we didn't put brakes on it," or "we crashed because the on/off switch welded shut and we couldn't turn it off,". Which actually did happen. I very quickly gained a great respect for electric vehicles, as they are incredibly powerful. The advantage of an electric engine is that it has the most torque at the starting line. When you first gun it; the pick-up and immediate acceleration is tremendous. The range, obviously, is limited. But, unlike gasoline you don't have these gears and all these other inefficiencies and so you can simple gun it and it goes very fast.
Q: It would seem better than gas then, for "start-and-stop" driving, like in the city?
TS: Yes. Especially if you have regenerative braking.
Q: Degenerative what?
TS: Regenerative braking involves harnessing the vehicles inertia. Regenerative brakes reduce a vehicle's speed by converting some of its kinetic energy into another useful form of energy. This energy is either sent back to the battery, or stored in a capacitor. So the Toyota Prius, for example, or any smart electric vehicle of an appreciable weight and size is going to have regenerative braking. A) it saves on your brakepads, and B) you get something, not a lot, but something, back. My bike doesn't have regenerative braking, mostly because we were building what we were building with no budget from scrap materials. So we were given a motor-controller (the motor controller mitigates how much electricity is sent to the motor through the control of the throttle), that we were able to fix, and that was enough for us. You got to make do with what you've got.
Q: DIY, indeed!
Next Time: Shannon O'Hare, Neverwas Haul creator