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Watch City Festival: Bright, Shiny, Steampunk Past Bewitches Waltham

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Steampunks at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

Steampunks at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

WALTHAM, Mass. — The fourth annual Watch City Festival transforms the center of Waltham this weekend into “a steampunk spectacular” of steam-powered calliopes, velocipedes, models of historic machines, scholarly panels, circus acts, parades, and people decked out in neo-Victorian ensembles featuring velvet, top hats, corsets and goggles.

“It has mayors and queens and musical stages and workshops,” says Elln Hagney, executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, which produces the May 10 to 12 extravaganza.

Evan Michelson and Mike Zohn, hosts of the Discovery Channel show “Oddities,” and James Gurney, author of the “Dinotopia” series will appear. Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys will perform. And vendors will fill the Town Common. Basically the Watch City Festival is a giant future-past party—one of the largest annual steampunk gatherings in the country.

High steampunk fashion at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

High steampunk fashion at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

Steampunk arose out of 1980s science-fiction and goth fashion. As festival organizers explain, it imagines, “What would the world look like if modern technology were available when steam was king, corsets were mandatory, and man was just learning to fly?”

It seems like a natural fit for the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, which offers exhibits on steam power, transportation, clocks and textile manufacturing inside the old steam-powered engine and boiler rooms of Francis Cabot Lowell’s 1813 textile mill, which helped launch the Industrial Revolution. But the museum kind of stumbled upon steampunk.

When they held the first festival in May 2010, Hagney says, “We expected about 200 people and a thousand showed up. We said, ‘Wow. What’s going on?’” So the museum added monthly steampunk meetups and put on a steampunk exhibit that, Hagney says, “took our visitorship from 7,000 a year to 53,000.” Clearly they were onto something. Last year, she says, the festival attracted 17,000 to Waltham.

High-wheel bicycles at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

High-wheel bicycles at the Watch City Festival in Waltham. (Courtesy of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation)

“We are in a world today where everything is the same,” Hagney says. Mass production, business conglomeration and franchising have resulted in clothing, coffeemakers and even new restaurants favoring a small handful of styles. “We’re in this kind of sameness world. There’s zero self-expression. We’re also in this world where tech has advanced so far that unless … we have a serious engineering degree we don’t know how that magic box in our hand works. Steampunk is part of a larger movement of individualism. Steampunk is one example of that. There’s also the maker-hacker community. There’s also the DIY movement.”

In other words, in our increasingly plastic, technological, wired world, steampunks have found in a Jules Verne and H.G. Wells fantasy of the Industrial Revolution a way to reclaim personal agency.

“My hope,” Hagney say, “is that in five years we’ll have 50,000 people coming to see this spectacular and it will be one of Waltham’s really positive calling cards.”