Random Ephemera

Browse Like a Victorian With a Steampunk Mouse

Art Attack is very keen on steampunk, mostly because when other children were reading the Bible we were playing Final Fantasy VI. The artistic movement combining early technology with Victorian fashion continues to build momentum in the geek community, and every day a few more trappings of the sub-genre become available for sale.

The latest of these items comes from a former United Kingdom Victoria museum worker by the name of Peter Balch. Among the haunted halls and drawers full of full of insects and fossils, galleries of birds and mammals and a library of ancient leather-bound books, Balch's infatuation with stylish machinery and 19th century style grew by leaps and bounds. He's taken this inspiration and built for public consumption the ultimate piece of steampunk collectible computer accessory. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the steampunk mouse .

The mouse is fully functional, with the hand of the user resting comfortably on the dome covering the miniature brain. Seriously, if we could afford to have this man build us a study we totally would. Since the life of a freelance writer doesn't really support the kind of trappings you'd see in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we had to be content with asking Balch about his work through the now-boring laptop we use.

Art Attack: What do you like the most about melding basic modern technology with fantastical settings?

Peter Balch: I'm not sure that I really qualify a steampunk fan. What I am is a fan of Victorian technology. When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be a Victorian naturalist. I had a brass microscope and a brass steam engine, an elephant's tooth and antique cases full of stuffed birds.

The Victorians had style. They had confidence. They cared about what machines looked like. They built for posterity. I grew up in York. In Victorian times, York was a properous city that built with typical Victorian confidence and verve. They felt that they couldn't afford to be provincial so they built museums and started scientific societies. When I was a student, the world didn't seem that way. The technology barely worked and fell apart within a year. My father was an engineer who collected vintage cars and taught me how much better made they were. So I did the same and learned that machines could be something more that "just good enough."

AA: What gave you the idea of making a steampunk mouse? Also, we're afraid to ask, but what's the brain for?

PB: Modern mice are just bland. Computers are bland too but I thought I'd start small. Computers become outmoded in a couple of years while a mouse will still work in 10 years time. A keyboard would be good but is a lot of work. I'd already done a memory stick but that's too easy - there's not much you can do with a memory stick.

Optical mice are particularly straightforward to hack - there are no moving parts. I looked at some steampunk artifacts and felt I wanted to do something more in line with what, to me, "felt right." When Victorians made machines they were functional. They may use corinthian columns where plain ones would work just as well but they wouldn't just stick extra gears on the outside for no reason. If I was going to make something, it would have to look as though it might work.

That's one of the reasons why it has a brain. It's an optical mouse - it looks at the ground and works out how far the ground has moved. How would a Victorian do that? They didn't have the computing technology but they might possibly believe that a brain could be made to do the job. Many believed in Vitalism. When you look round a Victorian museum, there a good chance you'll find a brain in a jar because they were convinced they could learn something important from pickled brains. Clearly, that's how Baron Frankenstein would make an optical mouse.

I studied zoology and dissected a lot of animals. I was a neurophysiology researcher for five years and modelled lobster's brains. Brains are just ordinary. To me, it's obvious that if a Victorian wanted to make an optical mouse, they'd use a brain. Yes, I realise my mouse brain is gray and real brains are white but people expect a brain to be gray. And, as a zoologist, I can see that it's clearly a brain from a small primate, not a rodent.

My original design had eyeballs attached to the brain. I put tiny distance sensors in the eyeballs which looked out through the glass dome. You operated the mouse buttons by covering the eyes with your fingertips. I had to abandon the idea. It looked great but had problems with reflections from the inside of the dome and it didn't like bright daylight.

AA: Are these for sale in the US? What's the cost and turnaround time?

PB: I would love to sell them. I couldn't possibly charge for the time it took me to make this one but if I made a limited batch of, say, ten then I could get the price down. It's a question of whether I can make them for a price that people are happy to pay. My current target is to make them for £100. What I'd like is feedback from people saying what they'd expect to pay for it. I'm not asking for pre-orders. I want to know what people think one's worth and whether I can make them for that price.

If I have the confidence to go ahead, I'll make a batch and put them on Etsy. I hope that the time from deciding to go ahead, to starting to sell them would be about a month - but I'm having trouble finding a source for the brass gallery rail.

AA: Do you plan to make any more steampunk computer accessories?

PB: Yes. I have a list of a dozen well-defined projects and a couple of dozen more ideas worth pursuing. The question is: where to start? I'd like to make them to sell. I like making things but I find that making things for myself is rather dull. Whenever I make anything, I have to have a customer in mind.

I need to understand more about that customer. What do steampunk enthusiasts actually do? Clearly, some of them make beautiful computer cases and others dress up in exciting clothes and go to conventions. If you sit at home with your computer case, who sees it? Do you take it to a convention and show it off? Do steampunkers meet in a pub once a week as a regular social event?

Their behavior affects what they want to buy. Whatever I make would have to be functional. It would have to be clearly designed for a purpose. It would have to fulfil that purpose in an off-beat way and it would have to do it reasonably well. It would have to be entertaining or useful for more than the first minute that you show it to your friends. But do I have to make artifacts that you can slip in your pocket and bring out to show off in the pub? Or should it be big and impressive on the matlepiece when guests come round? Are steampunk fans all students with very little money so I should make lots of cheaper items. Or do they have a good income with no kids and want to buy unique, high quality pieces?

I like the style and ethos of steampunk but I'm not a "steampunk fan". I need to study the species more thoroughly.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner