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No. 335:
Erasmus Darwin

Today, some poets watch the Industrial Revolution unfold. 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.

Poets sang along with the Industrial Revolution like a Greek chorus. Long before anyone saw how far the Revolution would finally reach, writers began celebrating the engines that gave it birth. A popular poem written by John Dalton in the mid-1700s praised an early steam-engine maker:

Man's richest gift thy work will shine: Rome's aqueducts were poor to thine!

And John Dyer wrote about the new spinning machines. "Art," he said,

... has a spiral engine form'd,
Which, on an hundred spools, an hundred threads,
With one huge wheel, by lapse of water, twines.

By 1800 the mood was changing. As the machines belched out soot and smoke, the watching poets objected. William Blake, like many others, drew images from Milton's apocalyptic Paradise Lost. In a poem titled Milton, God speaks to Satan and says,

Get to thy labours at the Mills & leave me to my wrath ... Thy work is Eternal Death with Mills & Ovens and Cauldrons.

Pretty heavy stuff! Poets were hurling some harsh weapons at the new machines. But not all.

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a key soldier in the Revolution. He was a doctor, a scientist, and a popular poet. He was also a founder of the Lunar Society -- that unlikely cell group where scientists, industrialists, and writers sat down to talk and to plot the Revolution's course.

Darwin played counterpoint to the literary main line. Romantic poets assailed technology. Darwin documented it. For Darwin, engines were a part of nature. We're drawn in by his glee when he describes the water wheels powering Arkwright's cotton mill: He says of the river-god,

His ponderous oars to slender spindles turns, And pours o'er massy wheels his foamy urns;

But Darwin's writing was more than just graceful. It was also prophetic. Here's an astonishing piece, written in 1791 -- 13 years before even the first locomotive:

Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER'D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
-- Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

That's an amazing vision -- a hope-fed vision -- a vision born in optimism that lasted for half a century -- a vision shared by poets and millwrights alike. Poets helped raise the vision up. They helped haul it back to earth. But poets have always understood what we forget: that we own the means for building a better world, anytime we want.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Klingender, F.D., ART, and the Industrial Revolution. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1968.



(Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library)
An Illustration by William Blake for Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden, 1799


(Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library)
The Frontispiece of Darwin's The Botanic Garden, 1799