Today, we break and rebuild our frame of reference.
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.
A breaking frame was a
device used in a textile mill. Loose cotton fibers
were laid out and fed to a roller-box -- the
breaking frame. It overlapped the strands and made
As Julie Wosk looks at 19th-century technology,
that breaking frame becomes her metaphor for the
act of integrating separate strands into a whole.
It's also a pun -- a contradiction. The iron,
steam-powered world that rose out of 18th-century
revolution broke every frame of human reference.
Just as we tore cotton apart and reassembled it,
19th-century technology tore society apart and
reassembled it. Meanwhile, artists and poets helped
us cope with fire, steam, and iron.
Wosk shows us two paintings of the Coalbrookdale
Colliery. One from 1777 shows incidental
smokestacks in a bucolic scene. Then, in 1801,
Loutherbourgh's famous Coalbrookdale by Night
turned that into a glowing, smoking vision of Hell.
By 1814 Wordsworth voiced his doubts:
... I have lived to markBy now the intensity of steam power had
created the first industrial accidents. Soon railroad
boiler explosions and collisions were taking their
toll. In America we suffered terrible steamboat
explosions. The public was drawn to the exhilarating
speed of steam vehicles. But they also shrank from
Wordsworth's "... appetite ... keen as ... war ...
Industrious to destroy!"
A new and unforeseen creation rise
From out the labors of a peaceful Land
Wielding her potent enginery to frame
And to produce, with appetite as keen
As that of war, which rests not night or day
Industrious to destroy! ...
We had to develop better safety valves and boiler
plate. But we also had to tie our engines to a
familiar cultural frame. Engine-makers made the
central steam engine pillar in the form of a
cast-iron Doric column. We decorated Philadelphia's
Fairmount water-works with
Classic columns and figurines. We topped the 1860
Atwater sewing machine with a pretty Grecian urn.
Not 'til this century did we finally settle on the
artistic iconography of modernism. We wrote a new
lexicon of smooth stream lines. We laid function
bare--put it out where we could see it.
So the artistic form that we call technology first
breaks our frame of reference. The 19th-century
artists whom we call engineers set the stage for
artists with brushes and pens.
Look around you now. See the signs. See how art is
helping us cope with the information revolution.
Watch art creating a new vocabulary of computer
graphics. Watch art acknowledging the technological
force that's breaking our frame of reference today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds