Artifact Analysis: Remington Keyboard

This is the “Remington keyboard,” created by Quentin, a maker in Paris, France. According to the blog writeup at Of Small Wonders and Great Wanders, Quentin has been interested in the Victorian era for quite some time. He mentions Houdini, Tesla, Art Nouveau, etc, calling the era “rich,” “creative,” “dynamic,” etc.

As with other Steampunks, Quentin was intrigued by the idea of “the future that never was,” and “retro-futurism.” It wasn’t until he began looking online, however, that he discovered the term Steampunk and the varied associations with it. I’d like to use Quentin’s words to show how he responded to Jake von Slatt’s keyboard; emphasis mine:

That’s how I discovered Mr. Von Slatt‘s creations and especially his “steampunk keyboard“, a brilliant idea with great appeal to the geek living inside of me (I hear him sometimes at night, screaming insults to me in php language… it’s hard you know). Inspired by his work I decided to try it, but of course without copying his original (first because I don’t have any workshop and any of Von Slatt’s tools, second because imitation is pointless, you always have to, at least, add your own touch!).

This is a pervading attitude within the DIY community, and DIY arm of Steampunk. It’s not enough to try to replicate what someone has done previously, whether it is because you don’t have the same tools, materials, knowledge, etc.

The fact is that no matter how you try to replicate what someone else does, it will never be an exact replica because you are not that person. You are you, and therefore, you will do things differently. You will flourish your paint brush with a different flick of the wrist, etc.

Let’s move on to the artifact analysis, shall we?

Identification

This is a keyboard that belongs to a Remington typewriter. It has been modified with leather, brass buttons, brass tubing, other metal embellishments, and what looks like gold paint beneath the leather.

Evaluation

According to the writeup, this is the first time Quentin has attempted such a modification. Quentin must have had some experience working with leather previously, because it is known to be a difficult material to work with due to its inflexibility and general unwieldy nature. The brass and metal embellishments are a nod to the Victorian aesthetic as admired through Tesla, Houdini, etc.

The name of the keyboard has more than one meaning, especially to those with some historical interest. True, as Quentin mentioned, the keyboard is a Remington brand. However, there is also the Remington arms company, a separate entity, as well as the company which produced both Remington guns and typewriters. I suspect the style of the keyboard modification is a nod to the historical context of the keyboard itself.

Cultural Analysis

Once again, we have a man modifying a keyboard, but this time in Europe rather than the United States, which suggests that cross-culturally, it is more likely for a man than a woman to modify the aesthetics of technology. Mind that I don’t say it is impossible for a female to do such a modification, I plan to do one once I get the time (i.e. graduate and get a job). Suffice it to say, however, that I didn’t even think of doing it until I saw von Slatt’s work, and then the derivative works of those inspired by him.

That said, this keyboard is a perfect example of how Steampunks inspire one another. Here we have Quentin, a blogger so inspired by von Slatt’s work, so empowered and emboldened by von Slatt’s explanation of how he did his modification, that Quentin thought, “Hey, he did it, I can too.” Yet, Quentin didn’t have the same tools or materials as von Slatt for the modification, which didn’t deter him, I suspect, because he was confident in his ability to adapt von Slatt’s detailed instructions.

Like von Slatt, Quentin used Remington keys, but unlike von Slatt, it seems as though Quentin began with an original Remington typewriter and modified it to fit his particular Steampunk style, rather than beginning with a modern keyboard and modifying it to seem old/Steampunk-like. Given its already Victorian style and history, I am surprised that Quentin applied the “future that never was” aesthetic to the fully functional typewriter. Not only that, but he added buttons to the keyboard that are, as far as I can tell, unrelated to the function of the typewriter but map to a computer keyboard. This is, I feel, because of von Slatt’s inspirational work, which dealt with a computer keyboard. There is no need for a typewriter to have the Function 1 – 12 keys; a typewriter’s function is to place ink on a page according to the keys typed.

Additional buttons that were added include the arrow keys, but the arrows have been replaced by hands pointing in the left-right-up-down directions. It’s a whimsical touch that one often sees in Steampunk modifications, adding something distinctly human to an otherwise sterile interaction between a person and the keyboard key. Oddly, the backspace, enter, tab keys, and the like, have been reduced to arrows, for reasons unknown. Perhaps because these arrows save space on the small buttons for the identifying function, whereas a computer keyboard has larger-sized keys for these important functions, distinguishing them from letters and numbers?

A brass U-shaped pipe has been added to the top right corner of the keyboard in homage to the obsession with steam-powered artifacts within the Steampunk culture, and the “future that never was.” It doesn’t seem to do anything, and is there for purely aesthetic reasons. The existence of this non-functional part of the keyboard undermines the rigid social constructs of technology, that being whatever needs to be there, should be there, and anything unnecessary shouldn’t. Have you ever seen a keyboard with a random tube sticking out of it, for no reason other than because it made it look a little more “cool” to the owner? I hadn’t until I began looking at Steampunk modifications.

As mentioned above, the leather is intriguing to me, as it references the history of Remington as both a typewriter and gun manufacturing company. I claim that the leather references the gun portion of the Remington company because in the 19th Century, most gun holsters were made of leather. The leather hearkens back to a more rustic time in western history, when everything in our world was mechanical, supported by leather, steam, and an enthusiastic view of the future to come. It’s a tongue-in-cheek combination of both into one, revealing the humor that often occurs with Steampunk modifications, that being the juxtaposition of unexpected with the mundane. The keyboard, as mentioned by one of the blog post commenters, seems to be more of a “laboratory or field-use model than the parlor room.”

An additional comment on the blog post struck a chord with me, that being “I’m not so talented, but I can copy so, I am working on recreating von Slatt’s design myself.” There is something to the transparency of both von Slatt and Quentin’s work which speaks to others in the community. Whether the steps to the modification are explicit or not, others are able to see where changes were made, and can extrapolate to determine how they would do the same. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

Interpretation

It seems the community aspect of the DIY arm of Steampunk is integral to the creation of such artifacts, especially similar modifications like keyboards. Not only do individuals inspire one another, but the modification of one will color the modification of another. For example, Quentin’s modification looked like a “field-use model” rather than the more typical “parlor room” models one usually sees with Steampunk keyboard modifications. Did this inspire other styles of keyboard modifications?

The explicit explanations from von Slatt’s modification empowered and enabled Quentin to do his modification. What can we learn from this as designers?

Perhaps if we provide the rationale behind our designs, it will allow our more advanced user-makers to interpret, adapt, and/or alter the design to their particular style. When these advanced user-makers explain what they did and why they did it on their blogs, intermediate and beginner makers will feel inspired and enabled to do something similar, but at their level. At least, it’s a theory I have, based on what I’m seeing from the emerging communal relationships between Steampunk keyboard user-makers.

*I’m not sure where I just came up with the term user-maker, but it makes sense to me. Perhaps I ought to write another post exploring my meaning behind this term…

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