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TRACK 10: ROMANTICISM

Along with steam, another force afoot in the early 19th century was a break with Rationalism. The Romantic poets told the scientists around them that we create nature by dreaming nature. That sounds pretty weird to our ears, but many engineers and scientists of the period understood and responded.

William Blake, one of the first Romantic poets, put it this way in his last book: "I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create." And, in 1801, then-29-year-old poet, Samuel Coleridge, wrote to his friend Tom Poole, "deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling ... all Truth is a Species of Revelation." Coleridge went on to say that he'd been studying Newton. It was hard going, but he was "delighted with the beauty and neatness of [Newton's] experiments." He also liked Newton's "immediate deductions."

Then he got to the point. Newton's overall vision, he said, was "so superficial." In Newton's system, the mind "is always passive — a lazy onlooker on an external world."

The Romantics realized that, after Newton, science had gone down a path of observation, organization, and obedience to the rules of math and deduction. But they'd downplayed insight and invention. Perhaps engineers were best equipped to break away and follow the Romantics' lead. After all, a machine is a Platonist reality, formed in the mind. The actual iron or brass machine is only the corporeal shadow of that mental reality.

James Nasmyth
Early photo of James Nasmyth at 36. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]

Example: James Nasmyth, born in 1808 in Scotland, grew up to become an engineer in the new industrial world. His father, Alexander Nasmyth, was the artist who'd founded the Scottish school of landscape painting. But he'd also invented a lightweight iron bridge, a new kind of rivet, and more.

Young James was raised in his father's workroom. He grew up in a place where an artist's mental images met the material means for making things. James Nasmyth made a life's work of rendering the dreams of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution into the heavy machinery of the 19th century. Yet, before he studied engineering, he first studied art. In 1840 he produced a great steam hammer to forge the new steamship engine shafts.

A decade later, that marvelously agile forge drew crowds at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Nasmyth told how he invented it: "Following ... this idea, I ... rapidly sketched out my steam-hammer, having it all clearly before me in my mind's eye."

So look deeper the process that spawned a lifetime of creating heavy machine equipment. We find the imprint of the artist's eye. His sketchbook reveals words, fragments of machinery, and calculations that look disordered at first. Then we see the progression from the inner eye to the outer world. We catch the sense of beauty that drives invention.

Nasmyth's Steam Engine
Nasmyth's steam hammer. [Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]. To see his painting of it, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/james-nasmyth/paintings/slideshow#/9.

Nasmyth erased the line between art and thing entirely. Great engines marched out of his head, onto his notebooks, and off into a new machine-powered world. And, when he was done, he turned about and rendered his finished machine back into an oil painting.

What he was actually doing was taking the dream back into his mind, where it was first born. He quite literally created nature by dreaming nature — then turned around and (in Jung's words) honored the dream.

John Tyndall
John Tyndall, from the frontispiece of his book, Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers, Ice and Glaciers, 1874

We read that same influence of the Romantics in the great physicist John Tyndall. He was born in Ireland in 1820. Before he took up physics, he designed steam railway systems. And all his life he was drawn like a moth to the flame of Romantic poetry.

His physics lay squarely between those two powerful forces — the material engines of external reality and the inner engines of the Romantic mind. He made constant reference to the wild forces of nature. His physics grew lyrical when he described glaciers or the erratic behavior of flames. Listen to this curious sentence from the preface to his text on heat:

I have ... tried to show [how physicists] pass from the world of the senses to a world where vision becomes spiritual, where principles are [formed], and from which the explorer emerges with [concepts] to be approved or rejected as they coincide] with sensible things.

Tyndall bent our usual view of the scientific method to the language of the Romantic poets. The scientist, he said, starts out in the realm of the physical senses. But the creative act of shaping sense-data into concept is a spiritual one. Then we must bring concept down off the mountain — back to the hard earth. There, we must put it to the test.

So inventors and scientists saw what the Romantics meant. Just as a poem or a machine is a reality first shaped in our minds, so too is our concept of nature. What, after all, is nature before our minds give it its shape? So it was that steam and poetry joined to give us a whole new world 200 years ago.

By the end of the 19th century, physics took its next great leap forward, led by a new breed of scientists — Maxwell, Boltzmann, Gibbs ... The century ended with the rise of Planck and Einstein. We now dreamt up a nature so far from familiar human experience as to boggle the mind.

Sources

Petroski, H., Industrial Revolutionary, James Nasmyth. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 112, No. 2, 1990, pp. 40-46.

Wikipedia page on James Nasmyth.

Tyndall, J., Heat: A Mode of Motion. Sixth Ed., London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1880. (The first edition was published in 1863. I direct the reader especially to the Preface to the sixth edition and to pp. 535-536).

Tyndall's book includes one passage I wanted to use her, but which was a too long. In it, he restates the first law of thermodynamics, which says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed:

The law of conservation rigidly excludes both creation and annihilation. Waves may change to ripples, and ripples to waves — magnitude may be substituted for number, and number for magnitude — asteroids may aggregate into suns, suns may invest their energy in florae and faunae, and florae and faunae may melt in air — the flux of power is eternally the same. It rolls in music through the ages, while the manifestations of physical life, as well as the display of physical phenomena, are but modulations of its rhythm.