A Question of Machinery
We look back to the Industrial Revolution as the great turning point in our history — as the beginning and indeed cause of our modern society. Eric Hobsbawm described it as ‘the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world recorded in written documents. For a brief period it coincided with the history of a single country, Great Britain’.1 The words themselves convey images of new technology and industry, the steam engine and the cotton mill. Historians in recent times endorsed these images in their analyses of economic growth, capital investment and the cataclysmic processes of technological change. Politicians still take comfort in a history of days of greatness when innovation, flexible labour markets and dynamic entrepreneurs with little state interference ensured economic success. This Industrial Revolution was a Prometheus, and it was not unlike the perceptions of those in the 1830s and 1840s who saw themselves as living through an Age of Machinery. Thomas Carlyle spoke of ‘The huge demon of Mechanisation … changing his shape like a very Proteus … and infallibly at every change of shape, oversetting whole multitudes of workmen.’ Sarcastically encapsulating the attitudes of many of his contemporaries, he pronounced on the new locomotives, ‘These are our poems’. James Nasmyth, the celebrated engineer, expressed some ambiguous feelings on his visit to the Black Country in 1830. ‘Amidst these flaring, smoky, clanging works I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted.’ The workmen in the blast furnaces ‘seemed to be running about amidst the flames as in a pandemonium’.2
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- Maxine Berg, The Age of Manufactures (London, 1985); Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1982); Keith Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor (Cambridge, 1985).Google Scholar