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18 September 2014
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The Age of Steam: The Cartoon as Source Materia

By Mike Winstanley
The ingenuity of great men

Image of steaming kettle
Detail from 'steam' cartoon ©
The drawing is an excellent representation of the popular view that the Victorian age was the 'age of steam' - brought about by the ingenuity of great men. As such it strengthens the contemporary belief that progress was dependent on adherence to individualist philosophies.

The heroes of the age were scientists, particularly engineers, whose achievements were popularised by authors such as Samuel Smiles, through best sellers like his Self-Help and his four-volume work, Lives of the Engineers.

Technological progress and mechanical inventions were the result of inspired intuitive leaps, made by heroic figures who were essentially practical men, capable of seeing potential industrial applications in everyday occurrences.

Image of a steam engine
Detail of a steam engine design, in a frame at foot of cartoon ©
The steam escaping from a boiling kettle is said to have inspired James Watt to adapt existing steam engines. The cartoon was perhaps inspired by the knowledge that Watt was also capable of envisioning the role of steam in promoting industrial civilisation.

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