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12 July 2014
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The Age of Steam: The Cartoon as Source Materia

By Mike Winstanley
A note of caution

Image of a steam train
Victorian steam train ©
The image, however, needs to be looked at with a questioning mind. In reality, Watt's invention was the result of painstaking adaptation by a series of different men - there were many others who were equally important in improving the efficiency of his invention.

The cartoon's vision of industrial society also gives prominence to certain features - notably the factory and railway - at the expense of other more ubiquitous characteristics. For example, until the final quarter of the century, steam was primarily used to power textile machinery and pumping equipment for mines; most other goods were still manufactured in relatively small workshops.

Despite the spread of the railways, the number of horses used for transport also continued to increase into the 20th century. And, although the vision clearly acknowledges the fact of smoke pollution, it fails to make it clear that, in reality, emissions were not painlessly dispersed in the higher atmosphere.

Thus, although the cartoon is useful in showing us how a popular view of the 'age of steam' might have been formed, it doesn't in any way give us factual information - as in many original sources, poetic licence rules here, a reality that historians need always to bear in mind.

About the author

Mike Winstanley is Senior Lecturer in History at Lancaster University where he teaches 19th century social and regional history. He has a special interest in northwest England. He has published books on the Lancashire cotton workforce, family farming, rural industry, housing and radical politics, and has a particular interest in the development of retailing and the role of the family in business. His most recent publication is Temples of Commerce: revolutions in shopping and banking in Philip Waller, The English Urban Landscape, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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