|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.|
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 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.
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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