Machines made of words

John Gardner

Unless you’re a steampunk aficionado, engineering and literature are not often mentioned in the same sentence. In today’s world at least, they’re generally treated as two distinct disciplines. But was this always the case?

Professor John Gardner, an expert in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture, says not. His research has shown that historically, the two disciplines were closely intertwined, with writers inspired by mechanical inventions, and literature influencing engineering.

Now, John has been awarded a prestigious Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship to delve deeper into this fascinating subject, with his project Turning the screw: literature, technology and culture.

"My project examines the intersections between engineering and literature," says John. "It will analyse how the two fields engaged, from the invention of the screwcutting lathe in 1798 – which helped to lay the foundation for the Industrial Revolution – until the Great Exhibition of 1851 when the results of experimentation, replication and standardisation were showcased to a huge audience."

"This fifty-year period marked the beginnings of our modern world, and I think we owe a debt to both labouring and literary cultures."

Machines altered ways that people wrote and thought, as can be seen in poetry, magazines and novels of the nineteenth century.

Unlike today, the arts and engineering were not separate fields in the early nineteenth century. John is examining how engineers and writers engaged in pioneering experimentation that focussed on improvement, innovation and economy.

The drive to create new machines was accelerated by the revolutionary wars in America (1775-1783) and Europe (1789-1815). In 1782 Thomas Jefferson questioned if his country could improve 'the construction of muskets [...] in the making of every part of them so exactly alike, that what belongs to any one, may be used for every other musket.' Today, we would use the word replication.

Before the introduction of Henry Maudslay’s screwcutting lathe in 1798, replication was rare. With this invention it became possible for parts to be made anywhere and still be assembled together. This was the beginning of standardisation, and it enabled a global engineering industry to emerge. Machines offered the potential for innovation: better health through the pumping of clean water; the ability to complete tasks that couldn’t be managed through manual labour, such as deep mine drainage; and innovative transportation.

The effects of engineering were felt far and wide, not least in the field of literature.

"Machines altered the ways that people wrote and thought, as can be seen in poetry, magazines and novels," says John. "These connections were evident in the nineteenth century. The Monthly Review stated in 1823: 'the capacity of these machines becomes effective in various instances in which human strength could by no possibility be employed […] the steam-engine ought not to be considered merely in the light of an ingenious mechanical construction, but as a most gigantic national resource, claiming equally the attention of the philosopher and the political economist.'"

In the Romantic period poets could become engineers, and mechanics wanted to have literature.

The Monthly Review, in common with other magazines of the period, was equally at home discussing a lathe by Richards or a poem by Byron. John’s argument is that literary forms and standards influenced engineering and, in turn, engineering influenced literature.

"In the Romantic period poets could become engineers, and mechanics wanted to have literature. With this fellowship, The Leverhulme Trust has enabled me to analyse links between engineering and literary cultures."

Supporting scholarship

Leverhulme Trust logo

The Leverhulme Trust is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK. It seeks to fund outstanding scholarship by supporting talented individuals to realise their personal vision in research and professional training. John is the recipient of one of the Trust’s Research Fellowships 2019.

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