Kinetic Steam Works – Oakland, California - Atlas Obscura

Kinetic Steam Works

Collective dedicated to restoring steam engines. 


A Bay Area collective dedicated to restoring steam-powered kinetic art, the team behind Kinetic Steam Works came together in 2005 to “explore and repurpose the artifacts of clockwork modernity,” according to their official mission. These retro-tech industrial artisans welcome volunteers to help in their restoration efforts and their open arms have found an engaged community in the area who share a strong interest in very old steam engines and a dying form of technology.

“Steam power is magical,” according to the official website of Kinetic Steam Works. “It’s calming and rhythmic. Steam engines themselves are beautiful, evocative kinetic art structures with the added benefit of being able to do work – kinetic art powering work.” The love for the engine is clear in everything that the group does, from the website to their work.

To their volunteers and any outsiders who find a way into Kinetic Steam Works, the group behind the educational arts organization is happy to teach the skills and knowledge needed for both the restoration of steam engines and their operation. The group displays their careful work to the world through artistic performances that utilize steam engines and the technologies that surround them. These machines, the group believes, blur the line between industry and art. “The steam engine embodied the ideologies, desires and dreams of its era, of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, a bright and shining future where technology was built by hand,” the website claims. “They were the aspirational finned cars and rockets of their day. Most recently, steam has been represented by romantic industrial arts and the literary movements of retro sci-fi, steampunk, and Gothic neo-Victorianism.”

Another argument for highlighting the power of steam for the group behind Kinetic Steam Works is its environmental friendliness. Generated by heating water using sustainable hardwood, the steam for these engines doesn’t require coal or any other mined materials.

Kinetic Steam Works has a number of popular pieces which they love so much that they’ve named. Hortense, for example, is the first engine in the Kinetic Steam Works collection. A traction engine used to power larger kinetic art pieces, Hortense is used to pull or push a moving display. The other centerpiece of the KSW collection is Pappy, a 75-horsepower J.I. Case Traction Engine from 1917 that has been lovingly restored.

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June 25, 2012

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