Kevin Orrman-Rossiter Reviews The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

Review by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon
by John Tresch

I will declare my interest up front in this subject. I have found satisfying the thought of science as a dry logical, mechanistic process. The enlightenment focus on rationality was an antidote to the superstition, both religious and folk, of the time. At the same time it would seem that this also removed the sense of wonder and marvel that is an integral part of human nature. Perhaps the best image of this is that of Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace. Laplace imagined an intelligence, one that was capable of calculating all future states of the universe on the basis of its initial conditions. This deterministic, classically mechanistic view was reinforced by the heavy support he received from the military engineer, Napoleon Bonaparte – this tightly managed scientific regime harmonising with Napoleon’s emphasis on the mastery of microscopic details of military and political domination.

At the start of the nineteenth century Paris was the centre of new industrial revolution. The wondrous new instruments at the heart of this were many and varied – electrical apparatus, geophysical instruments, daguerreotypes, musical instruments, stage sets, printing technologies, calendars, and steam driven technologies – but all merged with and extended the capacities of humans. At the same time our own view of ourselves had moved on considerably in the past 100 or so years. We now saw ourselves as a species ‘whose perceptions, actions, and technical interventions transformed its milieu and itself.’

In nineteenth century Paris though there was a coalescence of a new image of knowledge as the product of active and embodied engagement with the world and to the emergence of a concept of nature as constantly developing and susceptible to technological modification. This of course came at a price. This was the age of the first technophiles. A time where the technocrats and “scientific fundamentalists tried to ban emotion, individuality, and fantasy from the serious work of learning about nature.” Arising in opposition to this mechanistic focus was the broad Romantic movement. At this period of time though there was also a group who found the romanticism versus mechanism to be a false dichotomy – it is those that Tresch addresses in this book.

That there was some famous names in science, Henri Ampère, François Arago and Alexander von Humboldt to name a few, whose intellects straddled this dichotomy, should, hopefully not come as a surprise. In the first part of The Romantic Machine Tresch explores how these scientists, while creating the new sciences of electromagnetism, photography and geophysics respectively, also reached for unifying conceptions of the sciences; in contrast to the contemporary specialisation and competition that defined the emerging science disciplines.

Two of my favourite chapters in the book are those on Ampère and especially Humboldt. Humboldt used a vast array of instruments to measure geophysical phenomena; one of the first to fuse diligent, panoramic observation of natural phenomena with accurate and insightful measurement. The journals and lectures arising from his expeditions to South America are impressive still by todays standards and easily stand alongside his more remembered contemporaries, Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley. Humboldt bought about a revolution in the organisation and direction of the sciences by establishing international networks of trained observers to collect similar measurements from all round the world. He developed striking new ways of visually combining data, charting temperature changes across the world and changes in vegetation across a landscape. His image of the cross-section of the Andes, the 1805 The Geography of Plants, is still a marvel of exposition. Humboldt’s combining of the aesthetic and precision of modern instruments is displayed in the culmination of his life’s work the monumental overview: Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Most importantly, Tresch points out:

Humboldt was one of the first to make explicit a theme that came to have a lasting impact about the relationship between humans and technologies: that of the tool as the extension of the human faculties, or of the human and the instruments forming a “machinic assemblage”. […] Humboldt’s instruments were privileged members of a cosmopolitan society.

Part Two is a brief, but fascinating look at machine as instrument of the spectacular and phenomenal. This section is a kaleidoscopic look at Daguerre’s diorama, Berlioz’s symphonies, Meyerbeer’s operas and the ‘vulgarisation’ of science, changing its nature from polite diversion to mass entertainment. An interesting section I found, one that made me contemplate yet again the current 21st century post-modern push to ‘democraticise’ science.

Part 3 deals with, what were then, the new social philosophies and the ‘proper’ relations between people and machines: ideas and philosophies that could have become realities in the industrial West. These utopian, in many cases highly imaginative, and at the same time highly popular alternative modernities (the Saint-Simonian movement is one that I found to be an absolute cracker) were possible social arrangements that were engulfed in the hardening of social, institutional, and disciplinary boundaries signalled by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état of 1851.

The author, John Tresch, though finishes his book optimistically. In the conclusion Tresch reprises his story how wondrous new devices helped remake Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century. Furthermore pointing to, what he believes, is a recognition in the 21st century ‘of the central tenant of the mechanical romantics – that nature and human society are inextricably linked and that technology transforms us and our milieu, for good or ill – is finding new echoes, as warnings about the dangers of unchecked pursuit of economic growth and technological mastery grow more urgent.’

A final contribution of the mechanical romantics that Tresch applauds, and I find echoes in this books positioning, is the ‘scale at which the imagined themselves to be operating: at the middle scale, between the local and the cosmic.’ This book similarly sits between the popular easy read and the didactic scholarly work, it is a fascinating and thoughtful exposition for the diligent reader.


Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

Kevin Orrman-Rossiter is a freelance science writer and reviewer. His writing has features in COSMOS magazine, Books&Publishing, and online on Australian Science lucid thoughts and dragon laughing . Originally studying physics, Kevin had a successful research career, reaching the heady heights of an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, then after being lured into the fascinating world of industry research, he ended up some years later, in marketing and strategy. When not writing, reviewing, or reading books to review, Kevin is now found; forming links between Australian industry and researchers at the University of Melbourne, reading (what a lovely quaint term) History & Philosophy of Science at University of Melbourne, and, in defiance of ageing gracefully, trail running .


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