The Age of Steam: The Cartoon as Source Materia

By Mike Winstanley
Cartoons can be valuable sources of information for anyone interested in the past. Examine a well known image from the Victorian era, and find out what a historian makes of it.
Detail from cartoon below, showing Victorian industrial landscape 

Cartoons as a primary source

Allegorical cartoon of the significance of steam power
Allegory on the significance of steam power, c.1850
The Victorians were acutely aware of the power of the image to communicate complex ideas to audiences, and to influence their perceptions of the age in which they lived. The cartoon shown here, an allegory on the significance of steam power in the Victorian era, is a good example of a potent image of this type.

Historians, however, need to handle such sources with care. We need to ask who produced it, for what purpose, and whether it accurately represents contemporary realities.

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.

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 infomation - as in many original sources, poetic licence rules here, a reality that historians need always to bear in mind.

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