The March of Intellect: Newspaper Cartoons Satirize the Belief in Technological Progress in 1820s England

Before the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, few had occa­sion to con­sid­er the impact of tech­nol­o­gy on their lives. A few decades in, how­ev­er, cer­tain seg­ments of soci­ety thought about lit­tle else. That, in any case, is the impres­sion giv­en by the debate over what the Eng­lish press of the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry called the “March of Intel­lect,” a label for the appar­ent­ly polar­iz­ing dis­course that arose from not just the devel­op­ment of indus­tri­al tech­nol­o­gy but the dis­sem­i­na­tion of “use­ful knowl­edge” that fol­lowed in its wake. Was this sort of edu­ca­tion an engine of progress, or sim­ply of dis­or­der?

The March of Intel­lec­t’s most vivid lega­cy con­sists of a series of news­pa­per car­toons pub­lished in the eigh­teen-twen­ties. They depict a world, as Hunter Dukes writes at the Pub­lic Domain Review, where “extrav­a­gant­ly dressed ladies win­dow-shop for pas­tel fin­ery and for­go stair­wells in favor of belt-dri­ven slides” while “a child is moments away from being paved into the road by a car­riage at full gal­lop”; where “men gorge them­selves on pineap­ples and guz­zle bot­tles at the Cham­pagne Depot” and “post­men flit around with winged capes”; where “even con­victs have it bet­ter: they embark for New South Wales on a gar­goyle zep­pelin, but still have panoram­ic views.”

So far, so Vic­to­ri­an. One could argue more or less in favor of the world described above, as ren­dered by artist William Heath. But in the future as envi­sioned in the car­toon at the top of the post by Robert Sey­mour (now best known as the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tor of Charles Dick­ens’ The Pick­wick Papers), the March of Intel­lect takes on a flam­boy­ant­ly malign aspect.

In it “a jol­ly automa­ton stomps across soci­ety,” writes Dukes. “Its head is a lit­er­al stack of knowl­edge — tomes of his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and mechan­ic man­u­als pow­er two gas-lantern eyes. It wears sec­u­lar Lon­don Uni­ver­si­ty as a crown.” It sweeps away “pleas, plead­ings, delayed par­lia­men­tary bills, and obso­lete laws. Vic­ars, rec­tors, and quack doc­tors are turned on their heads.”

Near­ly two cen­turies lat­er, most would side instinc­tive­ly with the par­tic­i­pants in the March of Intel­lect debate who saw the pro­vi­sion of tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge to then-less-edu­cat­ed groups — women, chil­dren, the work­ing class — as an unam­bigu­ous good. Yet we may also feel trep­i­da­tion about the tech­nolo­gies emerg­ing in our own time, when, to name a cur­rent exam­ple, “arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent chat­bots have fueled ongo­ing anx­i­eties about the mech­a­niza­tion of intel­lec­tu­al labor.” Every day brings new apoc­a­lyp­tic spec­u­la­tions about the rise of pow­er­ful think­ing machines run­ning roughshod over human­i­ty. If no artist today is illus­trat­ing them quite so enter­tain­ing­ly as Heath and Sey­mour did, so much the worse for our time.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed con­tent:

Jules Verne Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts What the 20th Cen­tu­ry Will Look Like in His Lost Nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1863)

How Futur­ists Envi­sioned the Future in the 1920s: Mov­ing Walk­ways, Per­son­al Heli­copters, Glass-Domed Cities, Dream Recorders & More

19th Cen­tu­ry Car­i­ca­tures of Charles Dar­win, Mark Twain, H.M. Stan­ley & Oth­er Famous Vic­to­ri­ans (1873)

The Charles Dick­ens Illus­trat­ed Gallery: A New Online Col­lec­tion Presents All of the Orig­i­nal Illus­tra­tions from Charles Dick­ens’ Nov­els

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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