Exclusive Interview: Steampunk Virtuoso Datamancer, aka Rich Nagy, Shows Us His 'Tesla Cane'

datamancer1.jpgDatamancer, otherwise known as Rich Nagy, is the top creator of custom steampunk objects around today. He created my personal favourite, the Steampunk Laptop, as well as the Opti-Transcripticon steampunk scanner and the awesomely-named Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine, one of the craziest PC case mods around. We caught up with him to ask about his craft, and beg him for an exclusive sneak peak of his next project, the Tesla Cane. datamancer-withlaptop_small.jpgGizmodo: When did you first get into creating steampunk objects? What was your first project? How do your early projects compare to your newest?

Datamancer: I guess my first major "steampunk" modding project was The Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine. I started that one several years ago as a minor case mod (just the PC case) and the project kept growing beneath me until it became the endearingly awkward behemoth it is today.

I think the last two years or so have marked my greatest improvement in both fabrication and design skills. I look back at some of my older projects now and am actually a little embarrassed by some of the flaws in them. I've always been a half-hearted tinkerer and customizer of all things, but I didn't really "tune" my skills to custom fabrication until somewhat recently. I think the steampunk "modding" sub-movement definitely inspired me to greater heights and caused me to devote much more time to the thing I now realise I was probably meant to do.

G: What sources do you pull the most inspiration from for your projects?

D: I think some of my earliest influences were the props of the Terry Gilliam movie, Brazil, and The Difference Engine novel by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. I can't remember where I first heard the term "steampunk," but I remember that there were only about 10 results for it on Google at the time. I think it could have been from my early teen years where I encountered a role-playing game bearing the same name and thumbed through the game books.

Nowadays, I love walking around antique shops and seeing how things were built in the old days, when objects were made to last. I make notes of little flourishes and decorative elements that catch my eye and try to see how the items are put together (much to the dismay of the shop owners, sometimes). Lately I've been finding a lot of inspiration on the Brass Goggles Blog and Forum which has grown into a great little community of friendly and creative people who share all their cool steampunk findings and creations. I also enjoy clicking through the Aetheremporium, which is a great collection of steampunk links, and flipping through Steampunk Magazine.

Most of all, I love seeing what my fellow builders like Jake von Slatt, Crab-fu, Jake "of all trades" Hildebrandt, AlexCF, Professor Fzz, etc. (too many to list!) are up to. We all seem to cross-inspire each other and push each other to greater heights.

G: How long does it take you to do most of your projects?

D: It depends on the project and whether or not I have someone sitting around waiting for it. In the past, I'd usually have about seven different projects in the works at once and bounce between them in a blur of harnessed ADD. I'd hit a parts delay on one, jump to the next, then get an idea for another, jump over to that for a while, bounce back to the first, etc. In that regard, the projects almost determined their own timeline. Now that I've gotten into deadlined commission work, I've had to focus my efforts and learn to manage my time a little more efficiently. Even so, most of my projects have become very detailed and still take quite a while to complete. My keyboards take about a month to build after all of the cutting, filing, sanding, and hand-polishing of the metal frames, finding materials, modifying and fabricating the 105 typewriter keys, making the spacebars, cutting the faceplates, assembly, testing, etc., etc.

datamancer-drillpress-small.jpgG: What tools do you use?

D: I'd be lost without my drill press, belt/disc sander, band saw, and "the fine line of rugged, dependable, and affordable tools created by the wonderful people at Leatherman and Dremel" *cough* sponsorship? *cough* :)

I really don't have (can't afford) very many "specialty" fabrication tools like lathes and mills. I mostly just use a lot of commonly available hardware-store tools and if I need one to do something strange, I build custom jigs, spacers and mounts for them. I find that older tools are great for that sort of thing. Old tools seem like they were almost made to be modded. There's always some little mount, tab, or removable faceplate on them that lets you bolt-on some custom contraption or guide assembly. You don't need some fancy shop to build cool stuff. To be honest, most of my work is done on an old coffee table in my basement or on a homemade bench in the back of my one-car garage.

G: Have you ever considered creating a portable steampunk object, such as a music player? What challenges would you face modding something that small?

D: I've actually been sketching some designs for a steampunked iPod built out of an old pocket watch. The wires for the headphones will be threaded through a gold chain that could be clipped to your lapel or onto a belt loop if you'd want to actually put it in the "watch pocket" of your jeans (yes, that's what that little pocket was originally intended for).

Naturally, modding the electronics of new, tiny devices poses more difficulties than computers or larger devices. All of the components are in that near-microscopic, sub-micro-PCB-mount format and all of the cables and connectors are tinier, but it's still doable. From a design standpoint, it's difficult to modify small devices like cellphones, PDAs and MP3 players without ruining the intrinsic convenience and portability of the device. It's always difficult to balance form and function in a mod, but portable devices make that task even harder.

G: What do you have planned for your next project?

D: I was thinking global domination, then maybe a light lunch. No, I think my next immediate project is setting up a decent workshop. After that, I plan to build some more cool contraptions like full desktop PC suites with matching monitors, cases, mice (mouses?), scanners, printers, etc. I also have a few ideas laid out for major hot rod builds and maybe even a custom motorcycle. I'd like to use my artwork to fund some full-on, no-nonsense engineering projects and move my way into actual hard science, if possible. Who knows where all of that will bring me? Maybe I'll get my pilot's licence and build an elaborate, crazy dirigible airship in the style of a Spanish galleon.


One project I've been playing with for a while whenever I get a spare moment is something I'm loosely calling "The Tesla Cane." For a little while, it seemed like almost every steampunk tinkerer was building a cane of some sort, so we all had a running joke about these being "Steampunk Signature Cane" projects (like a Jedi's lightsaber), so I decided to try my hand at it.

I started out with a black sword cane because it was hollow, cut the sword short and used the nub of the blade to secure a long, skinny battery pack that slides inside and powers a mini 3-inch plasma globe up top. For the globe, I had to saw the power supply in half and move a few things around to make it thin enough to fit inside the cane head. The globe is going to be housed inside a steel cage like the protective cages on explosion-proof industrial light fixtures. To complete the high-voltage theme, I'm going to build an 800,000-volt stun baton into the bottom of the cane with prongs that will slide out and extend past the rubber cane foot, then retract after use.

Thanks so much to Rich for satisfying our curiosity and giving us that sneak peek of the Tesla Cane! [Datamancer]

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