The Roots of Progress

The poetry of progress

I’ve said that Western culture, before the World Wars, had a positive philosophy of progress. How do we know that people in that era saw glory, romance, even poetry in progress?

One way we know is that they literally wrote poetry about it. Take, for example, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles). By vocation a doctor, he also wrote poems. In 1791, he published The Botanic Garden, of which Part 1, titled “The Economy of Vegetation,” “celebrates scientific progress and technological innovation, such as the forging of steel, the invention of the steam engine and the improvements to gunpowder. It depicts scientists and inventors, such as Benjamin Franklin, responsible for this progress as the heroes of a new age.” (Wikipedia) In one remarkable passage, he praises the power of steam and predicts the steamboat, the locomotive, and the airship:

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 croud,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

Or take this stanza from “The Engine-Driver to His Engine”, by engineer William J. M. Rankine, which reads less like a classical epic and more like a popular ballad:

My blessing on old George Stephenson! Let his fame for ever last,
For he was the man that found the plan to make you run so fast.
His arm was strong, his head was long, he knew not guile nor fear;
When I think of him it makes me proud that I am an engineer!

Samuel Morse, telegraph inventor, was also praised in poetry. A poem read at his memorial service in 1872 begins by describing mankind as having conquered all of nature except for “the Ocean, the Mountain, and Time and Space”—until Morse came along:

But one morning he made him a slender wire,
    As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire,
    That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.

It wasn’t only amateurs and enthusiasts who wrote poetry praising machines and inventions. No less than Rudyard Kipling wrote of the beauty and glory of the steam engine in “McAndrew’s Hymn.” McAndrew is a Scottish engineer aboard a steamship, and in one passage he compares the engine to an orchestra, after one of the “first-class passengers” asks him, “don’t you think steam spoils romance at sea?”:

Romance! Those first-class passengers they like it very well,
Printed an’ bound in little books; but why don’t poets tell?
I’m sick of all their quirks an’ turns—the loves an’ doves they dream—
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!
To match wi’ Scotia’s noblest speech yon orchestra sublime
Whaurto—uplifted like the Just—the tail-rods mark the time.
The Crank-throws give the double-bass; the feed-pump sobs an’ heaves:
An’ now the main eccentrics start their quarrel on the sheaves.
Her time, her own appointed time, the rocking link-head bides,
Till—hear that note?—the rod’s return whings glimmerin’ through the guides.
They’re all awa! True beat, full power, the clangin’ chorus goes
Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin’ dynamoes.
Interdependence absolute, foreseen, ordained, decreed,
To work, Ye’ll note, at any tilt an’ every rate o’ speed.
Fra skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an’ stayed,
An’ singin’ like the Mornin’ Stars for joy that they are made;
While, out o’ touch o’ vanity, the sweatin’ thrust-block says:
“Not unto us the praise, or man—not unto us the praise!”
Now, a’ together, hear them lift their lesson—theirs an’ mine:
“Law, Order, Duty an’ Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!”
Mill, forge an’ try-pit taught them that when roarin’ they arose,
An’ whiles I wonder if a soul was gied them wi’ the blows.
Oh for a man to weld it then, in one trip-hammer strain,
Till even first-class passengers could tell the meanin’ plain!

Or consider this by the popular verse-writer Berton Braley, in the voice of the team that built the Panama Canal:

Don’t send us back to a life that is flat again,
    We who have shattered a continent’s spine;
Office work—Lord, but we couldn’t do that again!
    Haven’t you something that’s more in our line?
Got any river they say isn’t crossable?
    Got any mountains that can’t be cut through?
We specialize in the wholly impossible,
    Doing things “nobody ever could do!”

Altogether, these paint a picture, to my mind, of a culture in which invention was seen as glamorous, machines as romantic, and engineers as popular heroes. Growing up with this sort of thing, I can easily imagine a youth deciding to follow this path and become an inventor or entrepreneur.

(I’ve started a collection of poems like these here, where I’ve included full poems or longer excerpts, and links to sources. I’ll update that page as I find more examples.)

However, it’s important to be careful with historical comparisons like this.

First, it’s easy to (even unintentionally) cherry-pick examples from the past. Not all 19th-century poetry was about industrial progress; plenty of it was about love, war, beauty, honor, valor, duty, etc.

It’s also easy to overlook similar examples in the present. Poetry, as an art form, just isn’t as popular as it once was—but there is a modern equivalent, which is the lyrics of popular songs. So I asked on Twitter for examples of popular music in the last few decades that glorifies science or engineering, and got a ton of replies.

Here are a few of the ones that, in my opinion, most fit the bill (regardless of aesthetic style, and not being too strict about artistic merit):

“Fire in the Sky,” from the album To Touch the Stars: A Musical Celebration of Space Exploration:

“The Ballad of Smallpox Gone,” by Leslie Fish:

“The Norman Borlaug Rap”:

“Vidare,” by Adolphson & Falk (see here for translated lyrics):

“Sogno di Volare,” from Civilization VI (lyrics):

A few others that were frequently mentioned include PBS’s The Race for Space, Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants, and the Symphony of Science. (I was looking for serious lyrics that explicitly discuss science and technology, so I’m omitting parody, nor does electronic music count just because technology is used to make it.)

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. I still feel, when I read about the late 19th century in particular, that there was a reverence for and glorification of technological progress that is unmatched today—for instance, in the celebrations they held. But I find this specific exercise inconclusive.

Thanks to Clara Collier for help with the music research.

Comment: Reddit, LessWrong

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