Today, another kind of radical. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Below the surface of early 19th-century London burbled an
underground of women intellectuals. They came from many walks of life and they were
interwoven. In public, most were wives of prominent men. In private they shook the
very foundations of their society. Writers like Jane Marcet
and Mary Somerville reshaped the texture of science education.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein warned about technological
arrogance. Ada Byron promoted man-made intelligence of another sort
when she wrote about Babbage's computers.
Harriet Grote is less familiar to us. Her husband George was a radical Member of
Parliament. They ran with social reformers like
John Stuart Mill. And as they
promoted their political agendas she appears to've been the more intense and
extreme of those two.
I mention her because in November, 1838, she opened a letter from Philadelphia.
It was from her friend Fanny Kemble who said,
Friday morning we started from Philadelphia, by railroad, for
Baltimore. ... Half the [rail] routes ... in America are
temporary or unfinished -- one reason ... for the multitudinous
accidents which befall wayfarers. ... Americans have all the
impatience of children about [trying new things] ...
Behind a veneer of contempt lies her fascination with American energy. The letter
goes on to detail her railroad trip in a country that'd had these new machines fewer
than ten years. Here is a rare glimpse of an emerging technology. What makes it
all the more significant is that, nine years earlier, Fanny Kemble wrote a famous
description of her ride on one of the Stephenson locomotives.
They were the British engines that'd defined early rail technology.
Fanny Kemble was a noted London actress, but she preferred to write. When she did
an American tour in 1832 she met and married Pierce Butler, a Georgia plantation owner.
That experience darkened as she sank into the horrors of slavery at close quarters.
The marriage foundered, but her writings on slavery emerged to rally abolitionists
some years later. (Kemble's and Grote's mutual friend,
Harriet Martineau, also
visited America. And she too fueled the cause of abolition.)
And yet, though these women played a big role in building the case against slavery,
that's not what caught my eye when I read about Kemble. Rather it was her constant
attraction to the new technologies of transportation. Wherever she was, she took care
to look closely and recount details. She writes,
We crossed the Susquehanna in a steamboat, which cut its way through the
ice an inch in thickness with marvelous ease and swiftness. ... On other side,
... we again entered the railroad carriages to pursue our road.
These British women, bent on radical social reform, recognized a fundamental truth: As
Fanny Kemble made clear, reform would rest on technology. In the end, technology is
the agent that eliminates poverty, that makes slavery economically unattractive, and
which lies at the heart of all social betterment.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
H. Grote, The Philosophical Radicals of 1832: ... (New York: Burt Franklin, 1866)
See also, the Wikipedia entry for Fanny Kemble
and for George and Harriet Grote.
Furthermore, this site
gives one version of the passage quoted in the text. Much of Kemble's correspondence may be read
on this site.
Images: Northumbrian image is wide circulated on the Internet. Source unknown.
Fanny Kemble courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.