The moon illuminated a bizarre scene at a shadowy, semi-derelict industrial building on Friday night.
Hirsute gentlemen in frock-coats, women in fishnet stockings and corsets, both sexes sporting top-hats and goggles, downed bubbling ethanol from strange beakers.
Others set their hands on fire, unleashed the eerie sounds of the theremin, or discoursed giddily on the laws of physics from wildly spinning chairs. In the basement, something pulsed with an infernal green light.
It may have resembled a convention of mad scientists plotting world domination. In fact, the University of New England was celebrating the start of work to transform the disused Boilerhouse into a multi-million dollar children's Discovery Space.
It will, vice-chancellor Brigid Heywood said, be the classroom of the future: "Somewhere young people can explore openly and purposefully how the world works, and how to make it better."
The building will be closed for development next year, as the university consults families and educators. Friday night's event was an opportunity for the public to investigate the building, discover the university's plans, or to have fun with the Shell Questacon Science Circus - and discover steampunk.
Steampunk's neo-19th century technology, leather and gleaming metal, harks back, UNE Discovery head Dr Kirsti Abbott said, to the tinkering and mechanical ingenuity of Jules Verne.
The great French writer took his 19th-century readers on Extraordinary Voyages by cannon to the moon, submarine, flying machine, propeller-driven island, and, of course, steam-powered mechanical elephant.
The old industrial Boilerhouse, Dr Abbott said, has a similar aesthetic; hot steam was once fed through pipes to heat the university.
Verne's books, his publisher Hetzel proclaimed, united all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical science of the day, to recount in an entertaining and picturesque format the history of the universe.
So will the play-based learning space, teaching children the marvels of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics ... or STEAM.
Children from infancy to 12 will Dig Deep to discover the earth's sciences, from palaeontology and geology to archaeology, in the footsteps of Verne's Professor Lidenbrock. They will Know Their Body (neuroscience, sports science, health and medicine); discover agriculture; play with the physics of music and sound; and puzzle over patterns, numbers, and maps.
The Boilerhouse itself will reveal the story of energy, Dr Abbott said, as we move from the coal power of the past to the renewable energy of the future.
"Our legacy is climate change and drought," Professor Heywood said. "That's a heavy footprint to place on the next generation. But the solution is that we empower them to be great thinkers - not just followers, but explorers. Not to be constrained by the paradigm of the known, but to journey into places unknown." (A sentiment Verne would have approved.)
Once completed, Dr Abbott said, the Discovery Space will be a pillar of educational tourism. "The university has a responsibility to promote tertiary education and show what lifelong learning looks like in regional Australia."
The space will be a draw card for regional schools coming to Armidale for cultural tourism, and a headquarters for university and industry groups visiting New England.
The bigger precinct will have spaces for teenagers and parents, for corporate seminars, conferences, and community groups. Visitors can also discover the university's antiquities and natural history museums.
"We can make something really special here," Dr Abbott said, "and I would like to invite people to be part of that."
The NSW Government has provided more than $6 million, and philanthropist Christopher Abbott AM had pledged $3.5 million to reach 75 per cent of the $15 million for the project.
Report by Claudius Bombarnac, special correspondent of the XXe Siècle