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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Steampunk Where I Live

It dawned on me as to why Steampunk resonates with me as I have been looking at elements of art, gadgets, and gizmo's which are considered Steampunk.  What about it that attracts me to Steampunk is where I live.  I don't mean the geographical location, or my home in Independence, Missouri.  I mean where I spend most of my waking hours of every week, at work.  The building that I have worked in for many years is the old Montgomery Ward's Distribution Center for all points out west of Kansas City, Missouri.  Ward's shut down its operations there in 1979 and for many years the building sat vacant.  Located in Northeast Kansas City, a part of town that is considered in the 'Hood' these days.  The building was built in the very early 1900's before the future of electricity was figured out.  It was designed to be state of the art as far as technology for that time period, and was built to have electricity and pneumatic tube messaging throughout the building.  I think the only places I know of that is still using pneumatic tubes are banks in their drive through stalls.
The building was built over the top of two of the world's largest and still operational electric generators; only they generate DC power, not AC.  For those who are not familiar with the history of electrical power in the United States at the turn of the century (1800's to 1900's), there was a vicious battle raging as to which type of current would end up powering the United States.

There are two types of electrical power you can generate, DC or AC.  DC stands for Direct Current and is the type of power that batteries usually supply.  AC stands for Alternating Current and is the type of power produced from your local utility company and brought to your house or business by wires.  If your electrical device uses DC power and you plug it in there is usually a transformer somewhere in the plug assembly which converts the AC to DC.  Almost everything that needs plugged in to be recharged and has some sort of a battery associated with it uses DC power.  Household appliances, lighting, vacuum cleaners, and your welder runs off AC power. 

This building was designed and set up to run off DC power it generated on site!  All the internal wiring in the building is for the DC power circuits.  All the AC power lines, outlets, and light fixtures were added later when the building had to undergo a conversion to AC power because that's what won out when the war was over.

The short story is Tesla came to America with literally pennies in his pocket and his invention, inspired by a children's toy spinning top, an AC generator, tucked under his arm.  Arriving in New York where everybody came into the country from Europe in those days, he looked around and found Thomas Edison, Inventor extraordinaire, and was hired immediately.  Edison wasn't interested in Tesla's AC generator because Edison was pushing his DC powered inventions and believed that AC power was reckless and harmful.  The war for which would win out between DC and AC was already being waged and Edison was a General! 

After a short period Edison had quipped to Tesla that if he could build a device that did such and such that he would pay him a million dollars.  What Edison didn't know was that the future supreme general of the other camp was in his employ or that Tesla was a man who was way ahead of his time.  Tesla built what Edison had asked for in short order and fully expected to be paid a million dollars for it.  Edison was floored, amazed and flabbergasted but couldn't pay Tesla a million dollars.  Tesla got pissed and left New York.  The other major player at the time was a man by the name of George Westinghouse, Edison's arch rival.  Westinghouse was working on an AC generator but was having problems with it. 

When Tesla joined Westinghouse he came with a working AC generator only it used different frequencies, the same ones we use today.  Equipment is newer but the base technology we have for generating electrical AC power is the same system Tesla designed and built all those years ago.  Later Edison would create General Electric and compete directly with Westinghouse.   For those that are interested you can read about Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and their battle known as the Current Wars.

Back to my original point, this building I spend most of my waking hours walking around inside a large part of is like living and working in a Steampunk environment.  I am privileged because of my position and having been here for nearly twenty years to have seen other parts of the building rarely seen by others, like the room with the giant DC generators in it.  There are huge metal wheels that almost touch the extra high ceiling with the axle attached just above the floor and wheels going down threw slotted holes in the concrete floor.

There are parts of this building where it is just like stepping back in time.  All the equipment is still here, the power equipment, electrical components in glass vacuum tubes, wooden handled switches with brass contacts bigger than your fingers, giant hinged metal switches with wooden handles.  Any of this stuff could be the back drop for part of Frankenstein's laboratory.  This stuff wasn't built to be pretty it was built to work and last.   
  My world is conjoined to the past by my surroundings on a daily basis.  This is why the Steampunk stuff resonates so strongly with me, it reminds me of home.

As far as the fashion parts of it, what heterosexual male doesn't appreciate seeing a woman in a corset?  I would welcome that aspect of fashion and woman dressing like ladies of older times any day!
One final note on the brilliance of Nikola Tesla, he once brought out one of his electrical generators in a city that had just installed electric lights but had not connected them with the power lines yet.  Tesla was able to light 22 miles of electrical lights with no wires!     


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