The Revamped Spectrascope

The old Spectrascope had served me very well when we launched The Lazarus Curiosity at the Gerrards Cross Library, but when we got the invitation to go along to the inaugural Timequake Steampunk Convention at the BEC Arena in Manchester over the Easter weekend, a proper full-on Steampunk gathering, I figured I needed to at least try and up my game.

Many of my Steampunk heroes including Chris Osborne and Ian Crichton aka Herr Doktor would be exhibiting there. They are genii; expert designers, builders and makers. And, er, I’m not… far from it.

Despite that major drawback I still fancied having a go at making something new for Timequake – and the easy answer was to upgrade the Spectrascope. Gussy it up into something more than just a monitor screen which repeated a Steam, Smoke and Mirrors slideshow. It was then that the SS&M Director of Photography, Stephen Smith, suggested adding a keyboard.

Turning it into something like a Steampunk word processor! After all, I was going to Timequake as a novelist…

A great idea. He then upped and left me to it! Like all my ‘makes’ having a fanciful idea is always the easy bit but this project took more time, head-scratching and cursing than I even I expected.

In the attic, I blew the dust off the keyboard from my first proper computer. Years ago, thousands of rotten jokes had been tapped out on that thing. Maybe at last it would find a decent use.

Offering up the keyboard to the screen didn’t look like much to begin with but inspired a few ideas in how to make a modern-ish keyboard look passably Victorian… 

First thought was to spray the unit with a matt black basecoat, then dance a gentle spray of gold across the keys to age the appearance as best I could. By the way, that silver metal screen thing frequently photobombs the pictures, but finds a home eventually… 

I found a chunk of 35mm wood in the shed and hoped it would work as a base for the monitor screen. More by luck than judgement, by ranging the screen left to marry up with the letter-keys, I’d bought myself a bit of space on the right to rig up some extra, essential-looking steam pipework.

Next, to try and help that ‘authentic 19th century computer’ look, I framed the keyboard with softwood . Now, measuring has never been my strongest suit, which is a bit of a bugger when it comes to making stuff.

A bit of jigsaw-work was needed to trim the wood to the right depth. Then a bit more fiddly stuff to round off the ends…

…so the keyboard frame butted up as neatly as possibly to the base unit. Which sort of works.

Screws through the wooden frame secured it to the plastic edges of the keyboard, followed by a stain of light oak, the closest colour I could get to the monitor screen because I’m damned if I could remember the name of the original shade.

As you can see, I finally found a reason to use that lovely big gauge the original producer of this website, SteamMarkOne, picked up for a fiver on e-Bay. Topping off the pipe tower it wouldn’t look disproportionately wrong. The support strut securing the tower to the monitor frame is a central bracket from an old wardrobe rail which I sprayed rose gold. The wheel-valve, which also looked better for a squirt of rose gold, was ‘lent’ to me by the now promoted Steam, Smoke & Mirrors Props Workshop Consultant, Barry Down. Old 15mm copper pipework off-cuts, along with brass tees and elbows I found in the shed, finished the steam pipe tower off.

Now, I possess neither the patience nor the technical nous to gemmy the original keys off the board and replace ’em with a set of scratch-built Victorian-style typewriter keys like a proper maker would, so I thought I’d try an optical illusion: gumming M4 steel washers to the keys with builder’s silicon. Which I reckon works. If you view it from a great distance. The metal strip on the space bar was eventually replaced by a silver painted ice lolly stick. Which was probably a mistake.

And from the get-go I wanted to disguise that numerical keyboard on the right. The germ of an idea was forming, using that mesh. I tried wood cladding but only wasted time and timber by making a proper bodge of it…

…so after more head-scratching and foul oathing I finished up using that incredibly stiff cardboard from Scott’s Porage Oats boxes. Scored and bent, sprayed, then with that infuriating metal screen thing painted silver and siliconed to the cardboard, the idea was to give the impression of some kind of speaker.

The finished Spectrascope mercifully dismantles for easy transportation. That’s one thing I did plan.

At Timequake, and with the whole Contrivance put back together, ‘reassembled’ I believe is the technical term, the final job was to plumb the screen into the hidden laptop computer, fire her up and keep my fingers crossed…

Well, to everyone’s amazement it only worked…

Datamancer fine work it wasn’t, but on the Caffeine Nights stand the repurposed Spectrascope didn’t look too out of place. Ish.

© Colin Edmonds 2020