TeslaCon 2010 Recap 1 (GIANT post)

September 2, 2011

Okay, so trying to organize my notes into separate blog posts has become impossible. Please to be ignoring this post if you’re not interested in TeslaCon – the crushing weight of its wordcount may well squeeze the life from an unsuspecting reader.

I began writing this blog post last November, which should tell you how very much I’ve been dreading trying to make sense of my hastily hand-scribbled notes.

This is 1 of 3 Teslacon posts. The other two will be considerably smaller and more focused, I promise. I can say this with surety because I have decided to ignore the panels for which I took truly terrible notes and focus on the ones where my note-taking was more easy for my nearly-a-year-later eyes to read.

This year, I may well balk at my costume authenticity for the sake of a keyboard and computer. I promise to sit in the back so I don’t draw undue attention with my alien technology.


We met some wicked-awesome folks while we were at Teslacon.

Fiona (not her real name) wore this incredible costume. She was also incredibly nice, easy to talk to, and willing to chat about her experiences. This was Fiona’s first con where she wasn’t working security or first aid, and thus the first con she was able to attend while in costume! A costume which, by the way, she totally flaunted. Gorgeous. She said she’d spent the night before mixing the colored “potions” for her vials, and now her kitchen smelled like indian food!

Fiona also told us one of the reasons she’d never worn a costume, even when working at a con, is because it’s difficult to give someone CPR if you’re wearing a corset. Quite sensible, if you ask me.

We asked how often something like that was necessary, and she told us how she used to carry around tin snips and they would cut through even a metal-boning corset like butter. Some folks, Fiona told us with an incredulous look on her face, got FURIOUS if you had to cut their costume! She, in a no-nonsense way that I want to incorporate into a character someday, firmly told them that their life was more important than any corset, no matter how expensive.

Once, a knight at a medieval event fell and they couldn’t tell if he’d broken anything. Staff had to cut open his armor to check, and when he came to, he was in QUITE a fury!


Klinger (the name he gave us) wore a striking, reflective metal tie and looked like he’d just popped in for a break before heading back to the airship hangars to work on his latest invention.

With him, he had his “Death Ray” – an incomplete working laser weapon which shoots 5 miles, sets things on fire, and would earn him a $300,000 fine and felony charge if he were to shoot it at an airplane.


TeslaCon (Looking to the Future)

TeslaCon’s year is “set” at 1880, so any history buffs can look up what I am now considering the base timeperiod for traditional steampunk influence.

2010’s theme was “Up in the Air” and featured an adventure aboard a dirigible (despite the fact that we were in a hotel firmly planted upon the ground). I wasn’t sure how the “pretend we’re flying” thing would work out, but I was incredibly impressed by the results. Audio/Visual effects were very well done, and my curiosity about the next two Teslacon events is ablaze.

Currently, TeslaCon has a planned 4 year storyline, and the man in charge (forgive me, I can’t find his real name swiftly, so I’ll call him Lord Bobbins because it’s FUN) has already revealed the themes for the next two years.

2011 will be “Under the Sea” – and the way Lord Bobbins’s eyes lit up when he described the “not human” cast members we would meet next year, combined with his unabashed connections with Star Wars folks makes me ITCHY to buy next year’s tickets and see for myself. The date is planned for November 18th – why? Because it was the only November weekend that had no Wisconsin university football! (how did I escape Texas football only to land in another rabid football state? It boggles the mind.)

2012 will be “On the Moon” and I can’t describe how exciting that is without quoting Lord Bobbins directly from the opening ceremonies at TeslaCon 2010 – “We are now commencing the building of the biggest damn canon you’ve ever seen and we’re going to be shot right at the moon!”

The Making of TeslaCon

One of the panels I attended (I’d like to say “one of my favorite panels”, but let’s be honest – I loved them all) was on the making of TeslaCon and was given by Lord Bobbins himself, out of costume and out of character.

Some of his comments have stuck with me well beyond the excitement of the con in general.

The “immersion” con will always be what its guests make of it. We cannot REALLY be on a dirigible. He can add sound effects, atmospheres, things like the tearoom – he can hide the technology and the wires and the microphones as much as he possibly can – but in the end, it will be up to the guests to immerse themselves. Guests may stay strictly in character the entire time, or may swap between stately tea and laughing photo posing. It’s up to the audience, and I applaud not only his bravery in doing so (how difficult to let other people shape your dream?) but also the guests for upholding the spirit of the immersion without being stuffy about it and demanding that cameras be hidden.

Bobbins wanted a con where people could do more than just costumes – they could develop PERSONAS where they could have fun and not feel goofy. How many of you reading this are warcraft RPers? How much fun would it be to meet your RP buddies in costume and character, in a setting where you can spend an entire weekend in public together without anyone thinking you’re weird – and instead, wondering how they can get in on this cool thing you’re doing?

Lord Bobbins ran Star Wars conventions for 10 years (TEN YEARS, holy buckets!) and actually worked for LucasFilm to create some of the marketing goodies that you and I know for the prequilogy (get it? prequel-trilogy? I just made that up. It’s MINE, but you can use it. *wink*)

What sort of marketing goodies? *grin* Remember the giant ewok eaten by Stephen Colbert? That was Bobbins. How about the “dead Obi-wan Kenobi doll”? Also Bobbins.

Yes, I find this sort of thing very cool.

One of the problems, according to Lord Bobbins, with many of the larger cons really is that they’re HUGE. Funding for that sort of thing is often run by large corporations, which means a case of “too many cooks spoil the soup”. To combat this, Bobbins set a maximum ticket cap of about 500 people. He sold out completely, made the money he needed to cover expenses and fund some of next year’s con, and it remained comfortably small.

That small size enabled immersion – really, how do you find thousands of people interested in keeping steampunk immersion, let alone trying to house and handle that many bodies?

It was also CHEAPER to keep it small. The biggest expenses of a con are in venue. Smaller hotels cost less to buy out than larger hotels. Fewer people means less food necessary. Fewer people means less staff needed on-hand.

Steampunk posters were up throughout the halls of the hotel – some really great ones about dirigible safety. After the event, Bobbins let people take them off the wall and take them home. He also offered poster SETS (complete, unblemished) for sale, which was great. I nearly picked one up just to send them off to folks like Pike.

They also modified the room numbers outside the hotel rooms of known Teslacon guests, making them steampunky – I heard a LOT of happy comments about them, as well as the special Sunday paper delivered to con guests only.

An interesting story about the Sunday paper – many of the advertisements in the paper were ACTUAL newspaper contents from the 1880’s era. Bobbins pointed out that it was actually quite difficult to find enough cartoons and content to fluff out the paper – not because he couldn’t find them, but rather because most of them were so overtly racist that they would be horribly offensive in this day!

A few other things came up during the attempt to make the con more immersive. Food from that era was not … really what we like to eat now. Aspic, for example. Clove jello. Anise jelly beans. In the best interests of the congoers, these traditional foods were replaced with delightful cookies (baked by Bobbins’ mother, no less!)

Another thing Bobbins noted was that when creating the con, time was MUCH more valuable than money. Given three months, he could get almost anything done, but with less than a month before the con remaining, even a lot of money couldn’t fix some of the bugs.

Two ticket types were available for TeslaCon. The regular tickets were all that remained by the time that Mr. Moore and I purchased ours, but they also had Grand Royale tickets available, which came with a t-shirt, hand-sewn carpetbag, other goodies, and an artist-crafted neck gizmo badge – very steampunky and very cool, and each badge took 4 1/2 to 5 hours to make! The Grand Royale guests were very easy to spot in the crowd, and the final event of the con requested the attendance of the Grand Royale guests specifically, as part of the storyline (nice touch!)

Quotable Quotes

All from Lord Bobbins, unless otherwise stated. What can I say? Man had some great quotes.

Regarding the dastardly Dr. Proctocus : “Good Lord, the man puts cream AND lemon in his tea!” (accompanied by gasps and horrified fan-flapping from the audience)

Regarding the difficulties of steampunk fans getting through airline checkpoints. “Let’s face it – we’re an accoutrement fandom! How many ‘guns’ do you have? What about steel corsets? Tesla bombs?”

“Of course I’m mad, I’m British!”

After the first shipboard murder: “This is just a spit in my gullet! We can’t have people expiring all over the place! Just throw him overboard.” To the audience “You will be required to show your passports! It’s important. If you don’t, we’ll chuck you from the ship! … Just joking.” Turning to an aide nearby, more quietly, “See that it’s done.”

Mark P. Donnelly, regarding the choreography for Sherlock Holmes: “The result was more potentially realistic than documentedly so.”

The Manly Art of Self Defense

The Fist-To-Cuffs and Dueling demonstrations were given by a delightful couple who were themselves students of the man who helped with the fight choreography for the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Mark P. Donnelly, who I’ll be talking about at greater length in a moment. Suffice it to say that these folks CLEARLY knew what they were doing, and did an incredible job teaching us in the short time we had available.

Fisticuffs (or bare-knuckle boxing, as it is sometimes known as) went through a change after 1900, becoming more Asian in influence. Prior to that, it was its own critter with its own style.

The basic stance has knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, both arms up and out, but with one arm close and at the top of the chest for guarding while the other is extended either up or down. The power for the blows comes from the back leg, which drives into the punch. Defense centers around parrying, ducking, and countering – just as you might imagine with swordplay. Especially once the instructors began moving around, it brought to mind the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz movie. “Put ’em up! Put ’em up!”

Never punch with the defense hand (the one closer to the chest) because it can be blocked, leaving you completely open to your opponent’s solid forward blow.

Fisticuffs was also known as “The Manly Art of Self-Defense” which I can’t say aloud without imagining that I have a monocle, a mustache, and a teacup on a saucer.

In England, re-enactors are taught specific slashes and counters before they are allowed to have a sword, but after they learn those moves, everyone on the field can cross swords with anyone else. I thought that was a really interesting thought – of course a more experienced swordsman would make quick work of a newbie, but if everyone is there to make it look good, then this method allows for a relatively safe yet impressive-looking “battle”.

Three styles of fighting were taught at the Fist-To-Cuffs demonstration. Fisticuffs (bare-knuckle boxing), grappling (instead of punching, you’re grabbing and throwing each other), and cane (fighting using stout clubs of wood). All three were incredibly fascinating, but I found myself especially interested in the cane fighting techniques. I fully intend to utilize some of this for Remora, who will need to learn how to defend herself and who carries a parasol.

For fisticuffs, it’s interesting to note that European boxing uses 3 knuckles when making contact, while the Asian style favors 2 knuckles. When I thought about boxing, it was generally “men hitting each other, but not with pillows” and I imagined it would be a full four-knuckle face-to-fist collision. Apparently, doing that sort of thing leads to wrist injuries and what is known as a “boxer break” where the small hand bones get broken. Tilting the wrist, as you’d do to connect with just two or three knuckles, is often enough to prevent that sort of injury.

A few moves.

The “Chopper” or “Knuckler” is a block and counter in one hit. If you see someone practicing boxing on one of those speed bags, this is the move they’re doing

If you block with an open hand, you can then use that hand to grab on to your opponent, thus turning fisticuffs into grappling.

If someone attacks at your body, you can block it away, then use the opportunity to attack straight ahead.

If someone attacks your head, block with your elbow and move into a Knuckler against them.

Always, when moving in a fisticuffs fight, move to the left. Your opponent’s right side is their “powerhouse” and you don’t want to walk INTO that. You walk away from it – and they walk away from yours. This becomes problematic when you’re fighting someone who is lefthanded – remember, you always move away from your opponent’s powerhouse, even when you’re only doing a sidestep.


If you can catch the back of your opponent’s head when grappling, that opens you up to deliver a lot of blows and control a lot of their movement. The same thing is true if you gain control of you opponent’s shoulder – trip them with your knee and give them a push, and they’ll tumble. Snake your leg around behind their ankle for “heeling” – this gives you a pivot point to twist your enemy.

No matter what fighting style or weapon we were shown, for every move there is a counter and for every counter there is another counter for that. This is where skill comes in to play – the man who knows more counters is likely to win the fight.


The most common cane type was the Blackthorn Stick – it actually grows from the ground with a heavy knob at the roots and straight and solid all the way to the tip. Little skill is needed to make quite the wicked weapon if a person has access to blackthorn.

To an extent, canes became a replacement for the sword that many men were not legally allowed to carry in public. A cane, though – who would deny a man a cane?

Back then, two factions would gather to fight. Bards would come out and sing the glories of their champions. The champions themselves would then enter the ring and the fight would begin. Typically, one of them would get trounced and then everyone in the audience would get involved until the whole mess was one great big brawl. Women on the sidelines were known to throw in rocks, or even smack “the other guy” upside the head with a sock full of rocks if he were foolish enough to come close.

Note, if you would, that many cane fighters were Irish.

If, however, the police chose to try and take away a cane or get involved, there were no longer TWO factions fighting, but rather ONE – united against a common enemy, the police were usually outnumbered and outgunned. Usually, the police chose to stay back.

Chainmail doesn’t protect against a crushing blow, and most gentlemen of the age weren’t wearing even that. They would wear a hat, a woolen coat and would perhaps have a bayonet or a pistol that they were ill-trained in. They were nearly useless as a guard against a blackthorn stick. By the 1880’s, most people had stopped carrying swords and begun carrying walking sticks instead.

Women were known to use parasols – with these folded umbrellas, they could point, parry, and strike. Some women did practice. There are a few recorded duels between women. “It’s our honor,” the reportedly said, “so we shall fight for it ourselves.” Stripped down to the waist (as was dueling custom) they fought to first blood. Remember, folks, dueling wasillegal, regardless of whether there were exposed bosoms involved. Anything past first blood would require some fast talking to the authorities.

Canes were held in much the same stance used in fisticuffs. The cane was held up, resting gently across one shoulder. The guard hand was close to the body while the other hand rested on the cane further out. With this configuration, both ends of the cane could be used as a weapon.

If the cane is held with the thumb resting along the length of the cane, the combatant is able to get more accuracy in their blows, but they are also easier to disarm. If the thumb is tucked, then it’s easier to spin the cane.

The French style of cane fighting involves a lot of spinning, making sure the opponent can’t get close. If any of you have seen the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf, that is what I was imagining as it was described.

You can reverse the spin of a cane so that even if a normal parry connects with the cane, it is useless. The attack hits anyway because of the angle.

The demonstration started out with one person swinging the cane in one hand, then swapping which hand was holding the spinning cane.

If your opponent aims at the leg, the best thing to do is to step away and counter.

After every strike, a skillful cane fighter returns, ready to come back in for the next action. It’s a very smooth, very dance-like style of fighting.

Mismatched Fights

When comparing crushing fighting styles with swords, one thing to note is that you’re not trying to slice a specific muscle. When swordfighting, you target parts of the body that will most immediately stop the fight. A thousand tiny cuts do not stop a fighter. With crushing fighting, though, you hit anywhere you can make contact, because you’ll do damage regardless of where you land a blow.

Even so, attacking the legs was not advised. It leaves the attacker’s upper body open and an experienced opponent will simply dodge back and attack that exposed upper body. “If she can hit me in the leg,” one of the instructors explained, “then I can hit her in the head.”

One man was acquitted of murder on the grounds that if the deceased had a skull that thin, he shouldn’t have been fighting anyway.

A good stick handler will stay out – but a good wrestler will move in. Even in stick fighting, close quarters always turns into wrestling.

Size differential between opponents does matter. They would need to use different moves against each other. There was one recorded stance that was believed to be for women rather than men – the arms are the same as the traditional stance, but the fighter is bent sharply at the waist, butt back and chest forward. Men find it difficult to hold this pose for long, while women and their different center of gravity, can keep it with ease.

If you have someone with a cane versus someone without – you want to disarm the cane-fighter. If the cane is thrust forward, you can grab the cane.

Sherlock Holmes

While we were in the fisticuffs demonstration, someone asked about Sherlock Holmes.

The most popular fight scene from Sherlock Holmes is the bare-knuckle boxing match in the fighter’s ring. The instructors recommended that the asker query Mark P. Donnelly directly – he could probably be found signing his books in the “Duty Free” room.

As it happens, Donnelly happened to enter the room shortly thereafter, to see how the panel was progressing, so the entire class was rewarded with his answer.

In point of fact, Donnelly handed over the recommended fighting choreography, where it was then modified by both the director and Robert Downey, Jr. modified it according to their understanding of fighting. The result, explained Donnelly, was more “potentially realistic than documentedly so.”

(Forgive the possibility that I may have misquoted here)

The Future of Steampunk

Being a relative newcomer to the Steampunk genre, this was an interesting panel for me to attend.

The general focus was intended to focus on the rise in popularity for Steampunk and what that means for the Steampunk culture, but the majority of the panel was spent discussing Steampunk itself.

The primary panelist (we shall call him Sir Birmingham, as I don’t recall his real name) was having a discussion with a half-armored gent (whom we shall call The Mad Professor) about historical mustache curling irons found at antique stores. Honestly, after that, I believe I’d have stayed even if the panel had been on …something very boring. (I TRIED to think of a boring steampunk panel name, and honestly couldn’t think of one. Dietary reactions? Personal hygeine? How to avoid blacking out from paint and glue fumes when modifying nerf guns? All sound fascinating. I fail at making steampunk boring.)

Sir Birmingham attributes the birth of modern steampunk with the Wild Wild West TV show (no, not the movie – and you in the back, stop cringing. I LIKED that movie.)

The people who flocked under the Steampunk umbrella were goths, reenactors, and general nerds.

More than once, he (and I as well) have heard people say that they didn’t “become” steampunk – they just didn’t have a title for it before.

Much like the rise and fall of civilization, subcultures also rise and fall. The “geek” or “nerd” subculture in America is booming, and some might say that the vampire fandom is at or near its peak.

As more “general public” become interested in and join into a subculture, they bring with them their own interpretations of that subculture. Sometimes, those new interpretations are alarming or even antithetical to those already in the subculture – the fear of diluting a treasured thing through overexposure is ever-present even though that fear rests side-by-side an entire culture of people who want to express themselves. Everyone seemed very aware that trying to put steampunk into a carefully-labeled box would suffocate and smother the movement.

Conventions allow a cross-pollination of ideas. One of the panelists had attended multiple steampunk conventions, from coast to coast and noted a marked difference between east and west coast “steampunk”.

A Mrs. Dashwood was quoted as saying, “If somebody criticizes your version of steampunk, shoot them with your ray gun!” and I cannot imagine it better said than that.

The panel concluded with a discussion on how steampunk is a reaction to today’s world technology. Things are becoming complex and sleek and shiny. Folks are rebounding with a look to the past, to things that are pretty for the sake of being pretty, and simple clockwork rather than complex transisters.

(Part 1 of my Teslacon Recap now complete. The next two parts will be MUCH smaller and more focused)


  • Llanion September 2, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Oh man, trying so hard not to be jealous.

    Regarding ‘the man who knows the most counters wins’, this is an excellent point and holds in a lot of weapons and styles, but there’s another dimension to it: Using any impetus weapon (a sword, club, half-brick-in-a-sock, chair, bystander, etc), it’s a truly terrible idea to make the first attack. Making an attack with an impetus weapon requires you to commit to a line of motion, meaning unless you connect you’re vulnerable because your opponent can predict where your weapon (and you, by extension) are going to be.

    A good attack-counter sequence will end with the countering combatant pushing, parrying, disarming, side-stepping or in some other way placing his opponent, the initial attacker’s, weapon in such a position that his counterstrike is incredibly difficult to block.

    Even should the aggressor manage to respond to the counterstrike, it’s likely to be a… well, poorer-quality strike- from experience, trying to react to a well-performed counter leaves one off-balance, hurried, on the ground, unarmed or some combination of the four.

    My instructors in swordfighting are very hot on provoking the other guy into moving first so you can cause maximum bodily harm with minimal effort.

    Finally, and unrelatedly, reading this blog post makes me want to play Warmachine again. (If you’re a fan of strategy games, “Privateer Press Warmachine” is worth googling just to look at the pretty, pretty pictures).

    • Tami September 2, 2011 at 9:47 am

      Sadly, I’m going to leave out my recap of the panel on sword fighting, because my notes were truly terrible. Sounds like you’d have enjoyed it, though!

      I wish I had the time to sprinkle this with photos from the panels – I’ve got the photos in my picasa account, but I fail as a photoblogger. Suffice to say, the demonstrations that I’ve tried to render into text here were AWESOME and I think you’d have loved it. (How far from Madison ARE you, anyway? You could come to this year’s event!)

      • Llanion September 2, 2011 at 11:10 am

        Eight hundred thirty-five miles. Perhaps not. :/

  • KristenSue September 3, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Phew! that was a long one! : D

    Are you still thinking about coming to the Austin Clockwerk Con?

    • Tami September 6, 2011 at 8:22 am

      Quite possibly! Depends on what school/work looks like at the time, but it may happen. :D