Mar 022018
 

It strikes me that we are in a similar position, viewing the arrival of Artificial Intelligence and trying to guess what impact robotics and so on will have on our daily lives, to our ancestors in the late 1700s and early 1800s looking at the way steam power was revolutionising their lives. Then, and now, we can see change coming – but no-one knows where it will end. Uncertainty – and the fear of change – is always a fertile ground in which caricaturists can operate, and so here are a few prints showing the sort of alarmist concerns.

First up, a fascinating William Heath caricature entitled The March of Intellect – which I have featured before (see here), just to set the tone. It first appeared in 1829 and shows the endless opportunities offered by the March of Progress – for castles in the air, for steam powered iron horses, for bellow-driven personal transporters, and even a postman wearing what looks like a Red Bull flying suit:

Next, one featured on the British Museum site and published by Thomas McLeod in 1829 and entitled The Steam King- suggesting that steam-powered Members of Parliament would soon be generating Acts of Parliament for the Statute Book by the thousand, churning out legislation to match the needs of the growing populace.

And then a  handful shown  on the delightful Lewis Walpole Library site:

First up, Locomotion by Robert Seymour, dating from 1830 (and once more, published by Thomas McLeod).The man standing in the steam-powered exo-skeleton/mechanical stilts is complaining that the fire has gone out, while the lad with the bellows is doing his best to fan the flames. As its says, nothing is perfect. I like the various flying jalopies and delivery vehicles careering around in the background, creating havoc – and, interestingly, pollution!Next up, another McLean print from 1830, entitled New principles, or, The march of invention:

The clear message is that horse-drawn may be slow, but it is a darned less likely to blow up than your average steam-car!

The opportunities for change must have seemed endless, as here with a G Humphrey print from 1829 called ‘Pat’s Comment on Steam Carriages’ by someone calling themselves ‘A Sharpshooter’ – with the message that ‘ere long Pat would be going a-hunting before breakfast, not on his horse but atop his modified tea kettle…

Shaving by Steam, again by Robert Seymour and published in 1828, suggests that the days of the cut-throat razor would soon be over (ridiculous idea!):

And finally, a nice one about riding your own personal rocket, by George Edward Madeley and dating from 1830. It is called  ‘The flight of intellect : Portrait of Mr. Golightly experimenting on Mess. Quick & Speed’s new patent, high pressure steam riding rocket’

I guess it all goes to show: progress will happen with Artificial Intelligence, just as it did with steam power, whether we like it or not, but how those changes will affect us, goodness only knows…

In this context I quote from Erasmus Darwin, that great polymath and poet, who said of steam power in around 1790:

“Soon shall they arm UNCONQUER’D STEAM afar!

Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;

Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear

The flying chariot through the fields of air.

Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,

Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as thy move;

Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd

And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.”

Well, he also said that “there seems no probable method of flying conveniently but by the power of steam, or some other explosive material which another half century may probably discover.” OK, he was out by another half century in terms of forecasting the discovery of petrol-driven locomotion, but you cannot fault his analysis of the possibilities of speeding vehicles, or of attack aircraft bombing from a shadowy cloud. It reflects the confidence of the Georgian Age – they were starting to master the universe – everything was possible.

PS: Ok one more caricature: I rather like this one of the well-dressed ladies appalled at the passing oik in his steam powered velocipede, with its horse-like rear end spewing forth excrement/pollution! It was called The Progress of Steam and also came out in 1829 – a rich year for satirists lampooning steam locomotion.

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