Establishing an authorised version of engineering progress

The text of this post is an exerpt from the book “Inventing the modern world, technology since 1750” by Robert Bud, Simon Niziol, Timothy Boon and Andrew Nahum, 2000.

The far-reaching nature of changes in technology became increasingly clear to many in the mid-19th century as new transport and communications networks extended across countries and continents. Such innovations were brought to popular attention through deliberate publicity campaigns, and the promotion of progress also became institutionalised through the holding of regular exhibitions, showcases for new products and inventions.

A poster entitled 'International Exhibition Bussels 1897', showing a woman wearing a black robe and holding a shield, and hand-written text which says: 'Fine Arts - Social Economy - hygiene - Industrial and Decorative Arts, Lightening - heating - Ventilation - Electricity - Traction - Millitary Science - Manufactures - Sporting Apparatus - Sports - Popular Games and Pastimes - Agricultura and Horticultural Competitions - Practical teaching - Industry and Manual Labour for women - Commerce - Colonies - Fetes and Attractions Concerts etc. Brussels.'

One outcome of the popularisation of the notion of progress was the increasing lionisation of the engineer, personified as the creative force responsible for the transformation of the landscape and the dramatic changes affecting so much of everyday life. Among the first to receive such treatment was James Watt, eulogised as the ‘modern Archimedes’ for single-handedly conceiving the steam engine, the mighty invention which formed the basis for Britain’s greatness.

The stereotype of the lone genius, usually from a humble background, struggling with adversity to become a benefactor of mankind, was parodied by Dickens in the 1850s in Bleak house and Little Dorrit. In the following decade, Samuel Smiles established a whole pantheon of heroes of the Industrial Revolution in his Lives of the Engineers and Industrial Biography. These depicted their subjects as paragons of self-help, combining mechanical genius with infinite patience and industriousness, and went a long way towards establishing an authorised version of engineering progress, leading to perceptions which have never quite been eradicted.

A book cover showing two picutres of old men in old-fashioned clothing with the title 'Lives of Boulton and Watt' by Samuel Smiles.

Inventors invariably borrowed freely from the work of predecessors, or colleagues. The extravagant praise heaped on Watt ignored the earlier Newcomen engine and the work of contemporaries such as Trevithick or Hornblower. James Nasmyth did not single-handedly introduce the steam-hammer. Alexander Graham Bell’s contribution to the telephone extended little beyond the first imperfect prototype. The persistent emphasis on a small number of well known inventions plays down the achievements of a legion of unjusty forgotten technicians responsible for the continuous stream of steady improvements which ensured that technology never remained static.