Waltham and steampunk; like clockwork

 Steampunk often combines natural and mechanical elements, such as this beetle from the Mike Libby Insect Lab.
Steampunk often combines natural and mechanical elements, such as this beetle from the Mike Libby Insect Lab.

Steampunk! It’s a hot aesthetic, a science-fiction fantasy subculture, an homage to fine period craftsmanship, and now — thanks to a few forward-looking municipal leaders — an economic development program for the city of Waltham.

The Watch City Festival, held over three days in the streets, shops, and museums of the old mill city, is expected to draw 20,000 patrons this weekend. Many will be dressed in eccentric Victorian-era attire, their watch fobs and goggles and waxed moustaches on full display. Dirigibles, submarines, and unicycles could be more popular than cars. Steampunk bands, a mash-up of musical genres featuring a lot of violins, player pianos, and industrial-strength bass, will play in rotation.

Modeled after First Night, with a one-price admission button of $20, the festival was renamed this year to broaden its appeal, but it is still very much a celebration of the gears, gadgets, and geeks that define the steampunk sensibility.


“It’s a synthesis of the past and the future,” said artist and designer Bruce Rosenbaum, who is such an enthusiast that he steampunked his entire house in Sharon. “It’s a matter of mashing time periods and giving new life and purpose to objects.” And in that sense, it could hardly be a better partner for Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, whose motto is “View the past — see the future.”

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Elln Hagney, the museum’s director, conceived of the festival three years ago, as she was looking for a fundraising alternative to another ho-hum Victorian ball. Housed in the former textile mill built by Francis Cabot Lowell in 1814, the museum is the very essence of repurposing, an important aspect of the steampunk aesthetic.

For the first festival, in 2010, conditions conspired against success. A flood two months earlier temporarily shut down the museum. It was touch-and-go until the last minute. And then 1,000 steampunk devotees arrived at the museum, their eyes wide at the authentic Victoriana and machine-age curiosities in the permanent collection. “This community of makers and hackers, a majority of them in their 20s, had so much energy and enthusiasm,” said Hagney. “And I saw on their faces: This is home.”

Popular among the steampunk set is the 1985 movie “Back to the Future,” a title that pretty well describes the entire movement. Steampunk harkens back to a moment in American history when society was upended by changing technology — not unlike the disruptive technologies of today. “Technology is a black box. We don’t understand how things work,” said Rosenbaum. “Aesthetically, people are looking back at things made by hand. Clocks, watches, industrial equipment — you can see the gears mesh.”

Last year’s festival drew 10,000 visitors, with not a single arrest. Unlike the Haunted Happening in Salem, which has increasingly become patronized by Halloween hooligans requiring hundreds of police, steampunkers tend to maintain a more refined etiquette — Victorian, you might say. Their drink of choice is absinthe or brandy, not kegs of beer. As it has grown, the festival has attracted more families with children.


“It was risky at the beginning,” said Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy. Hagney had only been at the museum for a year when she proposed the festival, and the museum board and other town fathers took some convincing. “It tends to be more conservative, and this is not in any way conservative,” said the mayor. “But it really captures the industrial spirit and creativity of this city.”

Since the first festival, Hagney says museum visits have gone from 20 in a weekend to 100 a day, a halo effect the institution enjoys all year. Restaurants and hotels also report an uptick. But museums still have an educational mission, so even during steampunk weekend there will be lectures on working conditions and women’s rights at the dawn of the industrial age. “We see this is a Trojan horse for kids learning history,” Rosenbaum said.

The Watch City Festival isn’t on the scale of Telluride or Burning Man. But it is uniquely New England, and a useful vehicle for goosing the tax base and civic pride. Selling Waltham as Steampunk City took guts and imagination — something those old industrialists had in spades.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.