Engineering Romanticism

‘Singing the strong light works of engineers’

Walt Whitman, ‘Passage to India’

Turning the Screw: Literature, Technology and Culture, is a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship led by Professor John Gardner. The aim of the project is to investigate connections between engineering and literary cultures in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this period technological advances and workshop practice led to the creation of worldwide standards. A machine-driven world has existed since.

This project analyses how engineers and writers engaged in ideas surrounding economy, speed, revolutionary experimentation, and the transmission of power. The research begins in 1798 with the arrival of the lead-screw lathe and ends in 1851 with the Great Exhibition, an event which showcased the results of half a century of innovation and standardisation.

Poets and Machines

Poetry Engineering Romanticism
P. B. Shelley

Technology and Romanticism are commonly seen as being opposites. However, Engineering Romanticism research argues that literature and machines are more closely linked than has previously been acknowledged. As Jon Klancher notes, prior to around 1860 ‘a technology was something to read—a printed treatise or manual of skills that encompassed the whole range of what were then called the mechanical arts.’ (‘Scale and Skill in British Print Culture: Reading the Technologies, 1680-1820’). Several writers, including Percy Shelley and William Hazlitt, saw literature as an engine capable of work. They anticipated poets, such as William Carlos Williams, who later recognised that a poem is a ‘machine made out of words’ (The Wedge, 1944).

The Romantic period saw much experimentation in literary and engineering cultures. Texts can transmit power from the written word to physical action. When Shelley wrote verse on the condition of Britain he thought people would read the poems and consequently would then act. Oddly, when he wrote his most radical poetry, Shelley was also engaged in making a steam ship. Steamers were rare, and Shelley was amongst the few making one at this time. It was a hugely ambitious undertaking, which pushed the technology of the period. Creating poetry and ships might appear to be very different. However, for Shelley both poems and machines could move people.

Novels and Machines

Thomas Love Peacock, Shelley’s closest friend, also worked on steamships, but on a far bigger scale. Peacock, the writer of brilliantly funny novels, such as Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle created the first iron ships. He is also credited with producing the first gunboat that would engage in battle. As ‘examiner of all things east’ at the East India Company, Peacock made ships that would transform world communications. This meant that by 1840 a letter between Britain and India would only take a month to reach its destination rather than six months. Other aspects of Peacock’s work were darker, such as helping along the opium trade and the Anglo-Chinese war of 1839-42.


Lyrical Ballads

Experimentation and the belief that literature, like machines, could ‘do work’ is evident throughout Romantic literature. In 1798, the year that Henry Maudsley’s screw-cutting lathe arrived, Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads. On the face of it these poems seem to have little to do with science or engineering, but even so Wordsworth claimed that:

“The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments.”

William Wordsworth, from ‘Advertisement’, Lyrical Ballads (1798)

For Wordsworth poetry is ‘the history or science of feelings’ as it contains both history and science. It’s unsurprising that Wordsworth connects the two as both literature and engineering were influenced by the worldwide revolutions of the time.

Making Machines

The drive to create new machines was accelerated by the revolutionary wars in America (1775-1783) and Europe (1789-1815). In 1782 Thomas Jefferson asked if engineers could improve on ‘the construction of muskets’. Jefferson wanted standardisation so that ‘in the making of every part of them so exactly alike, that what belongs to any one, may be used for every other.’ Before the screw-cutting lathe replication was rare. With this innovation it became possible for parts to be made anywhere that could then be fitted together.

Roberts Lathe 1817
Richard Roberts Lead-screw Lathe (1817), Science Museum, London (Grace’s Guide)

The screw-cutting lathe enabled a global engineering industry to emerge. Before this invention nuts and bolts had to be made to fit each other individually. They generally had only one matching mate and would not fit another. Every screw thread, large or small was, in the main, bespoke. The new railway locomotives built from the 1820s on needed standards to ensure efficient manufacture and quick repairs. It took until 1841 before Joseph Whitworth published a world-changing paper on standardising screw-threads that would transform industry. Within a decade British Standard Whitworth threads were in use throughout the world. These standards persisted in Britain until the 1970s and have their uses still. An everyday example is the screw thread for most camera tripods. These still use a Victorian Whitworth thread.

Engineering and Literature

Literary Journal

New machines created in the Romantic period affected ways that people wrote and thought as can be seen in poetry, magazines, and novels of the time. As The Monthly Review stated of the steam engine in 1823:

“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”.

Magazines would discuss a new engine design or the latest poem by Byron in the same issue. Engineering and literature could be found together. Innovative machines could offer the potential for better lives. This is something that William Godwin argued in Political Justice, writing that machines could be beneficial to ‘the most important interests of the multitude’ (Ch. VI).

Machines could offer better health through the pumping of clean water and the completion of tasks that were impossible for manual labour, such as deep mine drainage. They were also beginning to be used for transportation, meaning that the use of animals for these tasks was gradually reduced. As the The Monthly Review stated, ‘the capacity of these machines becomes effective in various instances in which human strength could by no possibility be employed’.

Literary forms and standards influenced engineering and, in turn, engineering influenced literary cultures. This Engineering Romanticism project concentrates on three main areas:

  • Forms and Standards
  • Education
  • the convergence of Engineering and Literary Cultures
engineering Railway Steam
Buster Keaton, from The Goat (1921)

Research Outputs

Outputs for the project will include this website, articles, talks and a monograph. On these webpages you can find John Gardner’s author biography, a research blog, talks, and links to other projects. If you want to get in touch please fill in the Contact form.

This work is supported by the Leverhulme Trust