Monday, November 12, 2012

Con Report: Showdown at Unobtainium: Tesla vs Edison

I spent the weekend vending at the Showdown at Unobtainium: Tesla vs Edison.  To even describe this event is a challenge.

Mr. Edison and his assistant.  Photo by Wendy Corn.
The organizers took  a piece of rural property about 30 miles outside of Austin and turned it into a 19th century mining camp.  The ore being mined is called "unobtainium" which apparently has some effects on the space-time continuum  The design of the town was inspired partly by Deadwood, and I was really impressed by the effort put into all the little details.   The entertainment centered around actors portraying Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as well as various other contemporary celebrities.  There were educational presentations about various technologies, a Maker Mad Science lab, a few talks, several bands, and the Showdown itself which would decide who was the greatest scientist.

A project this unique and ambitious required a great deal of work, and I'm really in awe that it got done.  When we arrived on site on Saturday morning, everyone was helpful and friendly and things seemed to be ready to go.  The main problem during the day was that it was around 85 degrees and that's difficult to handle in steampunk or period garb at an all outdoor event.  Possibly that was the reason why things seemed sluggish during the early afternoon.  We got lucky in that there wasn't any significant rain, and it wasn't horribly cold, but I still would have preferred temps in the 60s.  But it's November in Texas, and it could be in the 80s or it could be in the 30s, you can't predict it.

Photo by Wendy Corn.
More people arrived towards evening, when the musical entertainment began.  If my count is correct there were 6 different musical acts over the two days.  My personal favorites were Shakey Graves and Barebones Orchestra, both because I had never heard of them before and because they were so good.  Shakey Graves plays some great blues-rock, and Barebones Orchestra is a sort of Texas roadhouse country rock with a horn section and a kick-ass violinist.  Marquis of Vaudeville headlined Saturday night but I was busy packing up for the night.  They sounded good as they usually do when I see them at a steampunk event.

Photo by Wendy Corn.
The actual Showdown between Mr. Tesla and Mr. Edison took place both on Saturday night and again on Sunday afternoon.  I was able to watch the Sunday performance.  It began as a debate between the two men on questions of science and energy which eventually devolved into fisticuffs and stick fighting.  It was, to be honest, more entertaining than I expected.  It was a lot of fun and I have to give the actors a lot of credit for pulling it off.  Needless to say, Tesla won and was declared the greatest scientist ever.

So, overall thoughts on the event.  It was a success for myself, vending wise.  As I mentioned I was very impressed by the setting and the love that went into it.  I think there were hopes of a higher attendance than they ultimately had, but I have no idea what the number actually was.  It's the kind of event that would definitely grow given a second year, so I hope it happens again.  Sunday was very slow and not very well attended, in addition to being hot and muggy.   It was nice to see a lot of faces that I haven't seen before at steampunk events.  There were a lot of people who were pretty new to steampunk and either were wearing their first outfit or were looking to put one together.

Photo by Wendy Corn.
If I was going to change something about the event I think I would try to create more things for attendees to do.  Besides a couple of educational presentations, shopping, and some demonstrations in the mad science lab there wasn't much going on during the daytime.  Most people spent their time standing around talking to one another, which is fine, but leaves newcomers a bit out of the loop.  If there had been more panels scheduled or more than one presentation area, I think that would have helped.  Or perhaps if there had been more structured presentations of the various technologies on display, perhaps on the main stage.  I know everyone wanted to see more of the Tesla coil than we did, for example.

A shootout in front of the saloon.  Photo by Wendy Corn.
But ultimately, I wasn't ideally placed to judge the event as a whole.  I had a bout of insomnia the night before the event, so I did all day Saturday on no sleep and retreated to my hotel room about 10:30 to pass out.  And I spent most of my time in my own booth assisting customers, and my booth was placed so I couldn't see the main field.  The fact that Sunday was much slower (and I wasn't in a sleep-deprived fog) meant I got more of a chance to wander the site.  I haven't mentioned it yet, but I was very impressed by the quality of the vendors.  I saw things that interested me at pretty much every booth, and was impressed with the quality of items being offered.  My purchases of the weekend were CDs from Shakey Graves and Marquis of Vaudeville, an octopus badge made by Mr. Tesla, and an Egyptian necklace from my booth neighbor Lisa Turner (for my Steampunk Cleopatra!).

I was so upset to have forgotten my camera because there was so much I wanted to photograph, both decor and people.  The level of costuming seemed particularly high, especially given that I wasn't seeing all the same people I'm used to seeing at Texas steampunk events.  There was a lot of quirky inventiveness on display.

All I can ultimately say is that I fervently hope this event happens again.  It really showcased so much of what is awesome about steampunk.


  1. Thanks, Kim- I'm glad you mostly enjoyed the event! I look forward to working with you in the future!! :)
    ~sam tyler

  2. You know, when I first started following your blog several weeks ago, it was just for your excellent tutorials and costume info because my goddaughter and her friends were getting into steampunk. But reading your report of the weekend made me long to be there myself. When we were younger my husband and I were in the medival reinacting SCA. Some our best memories are of events just like the one you describe; a few scheduled activities but lots of free time to shop, people-watch, or just sit and talk costuming with old friends and newcomers. So what do you think, is steampunk a young person's hobby, or could a couple of 50-somethings jump--no, make that *mosey*-- in?

    1. Absolutely! That's one of the things I really enjoy about steampunk as opposed to some other geek cultures: it's not just a kid thing. Most steampunks are 30s-40s, I would say, with a good number of people in their late teens and 20s. But there are plenty of older people involved as well. I've been to meet-ups that have an age range of 17-70. I guarantee you wouldn't be the only people in your age group at any steampunk gathering. And at least in Texas there are a lot of ex(or current)-Rennie and SCA people who have gotten involved in steampunk.