Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities
It is a great honour to be asked to inaugurate this first Digital Humanities Congress at the University of Sheffield. My connections with digital humanities at Sheffield go back to 1995 when the remarkable portfolio of projects in the Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield caught the attention of the British Library, and I was asked as one of the library’s curators to foster links with the pioneering work at Sheffield. Since that time, it has been both a pleasure and an education to watch how Sheffield has produced a stream of imaginative and forward-looking work in the digital humanities. I’m going to suggest that the ‘little mesters’ of the Humanities Research Institute form part of a tradition of innovation in Sheffield which reaches deep into the history of the town, but I’ll start a long way from Sheffield, with the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring.
An aspect of the Arab Spring which has caused particular comment in the West has been the use by protestors of social media. One protestor tweeted ‘We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world!’ A prominent Egyptian blogger, Wael Ghonim, named his book on the Egyptian uprising Revolution 2.0, and declared that ‘Our revolution is like Wikipedia … Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content’. Western media quickly labelled the risings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere the ‘Twitter Revolutions’. It was even claimed that an Egyptian couple named their baby ‘Facebook’. For some commentators, these events proved that new communication technologies were a force for democracy. Phillip Howard and Muzammil Hussain of the University of Washington have argued that whereas in the past protest movements in this region had been suppressed,
The Internet, mobile phones, and social media made the difference this time. Using these technologies, people interested in democracy could build extensive networks, create social capital, and organize political action with a speed and on a scale not seen before. Thanks to these technologies, virtual networks materialized in the streets. Digital media became the tool that allowed social movements to reach once-unachievable goals…
However, it seems that such a cyber-utopian reading of these events is misplaced. It has been pointed that there does not appear to be a correlation between internet penetration and the extent of Arab protests. Thus, there were widespread protests in the Yemen, where rate of internet penetration is low, but few protests in the Gulf States where there was greater access to the internet. An analysis of clicks on links in tweets relating to the protests indicates that much of the internet traffic generated by the risings came from outside the countries affected, suggesting that the chief role of social media was not to coordinate protests but rather to alert the outside world to what was happening. When the internet was switched off in Egypt, the protests actually grew in size, suggesting that social media was not essential to the co-ordination of protests. New media did not simply supplant traditional sources of news. Indeed, it seems that much of the impact of new media was a result of its use as a source of information by traditional news outlets. For example, it has been suggested that much of the mainstream media’s coverage of events in Tunisia was derived from Tunisian Facebook pages which had been repackaged for a blog maintained for Tunisian exiles and then passed onto journalists via Twitter (Cottle p. 652). There appears to have been a realignment in which old and new media remediated each other in a complex interplay.
Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh in an important recent study have used interviews with Egyptian activists to contextualize the role of new media in the Egyptian uprising. They describe how activists including representatives of youth movements, workers’ groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, met for weeks beforehand to plan the protests. Alexander and Aouragh emphasise that ‘the Egyptian activists we interviewed rightly reject simplistic claims that technology somehow caused the 2011 uprisings, and they say it undermines the agency of the millions of people who participated in the movement that brought down Hosni Mubarak’. But Alexander and Aouragh remind us that there is also a risk of falling into the opposite trap by assuming that, if social media did not cause the Arab Spring, then they were of no significance. A million and half tweets from Egypt at the time of the rising suggest this is wrong, and Alexander and Aouragh insist that we need to move away from false polarisations and place the internet activism of the Arab Spring in the context of wider developments in media and the public sphere. The Arab Spring saw a profound realignment of the relationship between new and old media, in which new media emerged as an important additional space for dissent and protest. In past revolutions, it has often been difficult to recapture the voices of the insurgents; social media now gives us unparalleled opportunities to explore these textualities of revolt.
However, what I am interested in here is the cyber-myth, the idea that Facebook and Twitter allowed the Arab protests to succeed when previously they had easily been suppressed. This is a myth that has gained a firm hold in the popular imagination, and it reflects a deeply held belief that the digital revolution will not simply alter our working life and give us new forms of leisure but will also lead to major political and social upheaval, on a par with such great historical movements of the past as the Reformation. This widespread belief in inexorable technological progress has been well expressed by Michael Brodie, the Chief Scientist of Network Technologies for Verizon, the American telecommunications company, who suggests that we are about to see a digital revolution which will make the Reformation or the Industrial Revolution seem low-key. Brodie declared that:
the Gutenberg Bible led to religious reformation while the Web appears to be leading towards social and economic reformation. But the Digital Industrial revolution, because of the issues and phenomena surrounding the Web and its interactions with society, is occurring at lightning speed with profound impacts on society, the economy, politics, and more.
There is a common assumption in the West that changes in digital technologies will inexorably generate major transformations in social, political and economic structures. The American business guru Clayton Christiansen introduced in 1995 the idea that business success was associated with the development and adoption of ‘disruptive technologies’. Christiansen subsequently adopted the wider term ‘disruptive innovations’ to reflect the idea that business models could also be disruptive. In coining the term Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly picked up on the disruptive zeitgeist and disruption has consistently been seen as a feature of Web 2.0. The strapline for one of the first Web 2.0 conferences in 2008 was ‘Design, Develop, Disrupt’.
New technologies of communication have been seen as particularly disruptive and likely to produce major social and political upheaval. Among the most influential media theorists have been the Toronto school of Harold Innes, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, who suggested that major epochs in human history were marked by the appearance of new communication media. They proposed that the shift from an oral to a literate society was one such shift. The appearance of printing in the West is seen as another major transformation precipitating great upheaval. In this analysis, the impact of the printing press is a pointer towards the type of social and cultural disruptions which will be produced by the emergence of electronic and digital forms of communication. The idea that the printing press was a major agent of social, religious and political change has become widely accepted as a result of the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein. In a monumental study, Eisenstein suggested that the role of printing had not been given sufficient weight in accounts of the Renaissance, Reformation or Scientific Revolution and that printing was ‘the unacknowledged revolution’. Eisenstein argued that there were two major means by which printing acted as an agent of change. First, she suggested that print standardized texts which had been fluid during periods of oral and manuscript circulation. This enabled knowledge to become more settled and easily transmitted. Second, Eisenstein argued that, by making large numbers of texts available, their contradictions and mistakes became more evident, so that readers became more critical and sceptical of authority.
The circulation of digital information alters once again these two key characteristics of information. Texts have perhaps ceased to become fixed, so that it could be suggested we have reverted to the fluidity of oral and manuscript culture. In a recent presentation at MIT, the folklorist Tom Pettit proposed the Gutenberg thesis, ‘the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces’. If Eisenstein was right, then it seems reasonable to expect that we will shortly see new historical movements comparable to the Renaissance and Reformation, disruptions and transformations on a cataclysmic scale. Yet a growing number of historical bibliographers are expressing doubts about Eisenstein’s thesis. There were states which were to resist the printing press. The church and state ensured that the printing press was kept out of Russia and when a press was set up in Moscow in 1564 it was soon destroyed by a mob. The Ottoman Empire was likewise able to keep printing at bay, with the first Turkish press only being established in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the printing press did not kill off the manuscript. David McKitterick has described how a manuscript of a treatise by Walter Hilton was copied at Sheen in 1499, despite the fact that the owner of the manuscript had a copy of the printed version of the same treatise produced by Wynkyn de Worde five years previously. Although the production of printed gazettes flourished in seventeenth-century England, manuscript newsletters were equally important in the dissemination of news. Indeed, many regarded manuscript news as more reliable than the printed version and the Duke of Newcastle warned Charles II that the pen was actually far more dangerous than the press, since opponents might be bolder in a letter than in print. John Donne and Andrew Marvell were suspicious of print and believed that manuscripts might prove to be more durable.
The survival of a mixed media economy after Gutenberg is perhaps not surprising, but a more substantial objection to Eisenstein’s work is that there is substantial evidence that printing did not standardise texts. Printing was a craft activity and just like manuscript copying there were many points in the processing of printing in which accidents, errors and mistakes could be introduced. As David McKitterick has pointed out:
From the 42-line Bible onwards, thousands of books [printed in the fifteenth century] exist with different type settings for reasons that are not always clear but that always emanate from some adjustment found necessary in the printing house or the binder’s bench … Of three dozen copies surviving of Fust and Schoeffer’s Durandus (1459), no two copies are exactly alike.
Examples of printed books which differ as much as manuscripts can be multiplied endlessly. Famously, no two copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio are exactly the same. William Aldus Wright compared ten copies of the 1625 edition of Bacon’s Essays, and found that none were the same. Wright observed that:
The cause of these differences is not difficult to conjecture. Corrections were made while the sheets were being printed off, and the corrected and uncorrected sheets were afterwards bound up indiscriminately. In this way the number of different copies might be multiplied to any extent.
In other words, it is likely that no two copies of this edition of Bacon’s work are the same. The implications of this for online presentation of early printed books are fundamental and have not I believe been sufficiently discussed. Early English Books Online presents us with images of just one copy of the 1625 edition of Bacon’s work from Cambridge University Library, so we have no way online of investigating the other variant copies. Far from making the text of Bacon’s work more fluid, the online presentation destroys our awareness of the fluidity and variation of the printed text.
The picture which emerges from historical bibliographers such as David McKitterick, Adrian Johns and Sabrina Baron is that Gutenberg’s introduction of the press marked one stage in the long process of the evolution of printing. As Raymond Williams pointed out, the rise in literacy and access to information was a long revolution in which the appearance of the steam-driven printing press in the nineteenth century was just as important as the work of Gutenberg. Moreover, this process was not technologically driven. Political struggles over issues such as censorship and taxes were just as important as technological innovation in opening up access to printed information. As David McKitterick has pointed out: ‘the printing revolution itself, a phrase which has been taken to heart by some historians, was no revolution in the sense that it wrought instant change. The revolution was part technological, and part bibliographical and social. It was prolonged, and like many revolutions its process was irregular, and its effects were variable, even erratic.’
The picture painted by McKitterick and other historical bibliographers of the impact of printing recalls the description of the Arab Spring by Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh. The process was a complex and extended one, involving the realignment and repurposing of media rather than a simple disruptive transformation. In the light of these types of analysis, it becomes very difficult to accept the technologically-led disruptive model of media history proposed by the Toronto school of Innes, McLuhan and Ong. Moreover, the Toronto school privileges technologies of communication, which make it sound as if technologies like the printing press dropped from the sky. The history of media reflects a much broader technological base. Printing presses only became capable of mass production when they began to be powered by steam engines in the early nineteenth century. To feed the new steam-powered presses, it was necessary to devise new methods of making paper. Even then, the new machine-made books would not have been widely distributed without canals and railways. All these technologies were necessary to make printed books everyday objects.
In recent discussion of disruptive innovations, the focus is frequently on the history of the media, and comparatively little attention is paid to one of the most disruptive moments in Western history, the profound economic changes which began in the late eighteenth century and are known as the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. This period is conventionally taken as marking the rise of modernity, and in a wide range of scholarly literature across many disciplines is seen as a major watershed in human history. In contemplating the digital revolution, it may seem as if there is little to learn from looking back to the Industrial Revolution. The clean, hi-tech electronic world of the digital seems utterly opposed to the smoky, muscle-driven factories of early industrialization. The digital is frequently represented as a means of escape from the industrial. Yet our digital world is largely a creation of many of the key technologies of that industrial world. The development of the telegraph was closely linked to the growth of railways, and the concept of the digital was the creation of engineers seeking to improve the performance of telegraph wires. One of the great icons of the Industrial Revolution, Brunel’s steamship the Great Eastern, was used to lay the first transatlantic cable, thereby effectively laying the foundations of the internet. Some of the fundamental concepts behind the computer programme as a sequence of logical instructions were developed in the 1820s from punch card mechanisms used to control mechanical looms. Moreover, it was the machines created by the Industrial Revolution which provided the technological infrastructure to create computers – to create the turbines, valves, transistors, silicon, cathode ray tubes which makes the computer one of the most sophisticated products of Western industrialisation.
The industrialization of the late eighteenth century was a process which first gained momentum in various regions of Great Britain, such as South Yorkshire. There can be no better place than Sheffield, one of the great centres of the industrial revolution, to consider the industrial dimensions of the digital and contemplate the Industrial Revolution as a disruptive moment. Does the Industrial Revolution, and the associated developments of the Agricultural Revolution, have anything to teach us in considering potential digital transformations? This was clearly a period when technological innovation was important. It felt like a period of transformation. Tourists travelled from Europe to admire such wonders as the Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale and artists such as Joseph Wright and Phillip Loutherbourg celebrated these new technologies. In works of literature such as Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, the rights and wrongs of the manufacturing system were earnestly debated, with one character praising the profound researches, scientific inventions and complicated mechanisms which had given employment and multiplied comfort, while another denounced the innovations: ‘Wherever this boasted machinery is established, the children of the poor are death-doomed from their cradles. Look for one moment into a cotton mill, amidst the smell of oil, the smoke of lamps, the rattling of wheels, the dizzy and complicated motions of diabolical mechanisms’. Wide-ranging cultural and social transformations have been attributed to these technological changes, such as regular working hours and standardized timekeeping.
Sheffield has an industrial tradition as a centre of cutlery manufacture which goes back to the middle ages. It was partly the specialized skills available in Sheffield which prompted Benjamin Huntsman to establish himself in Sheffield to undertake his experiments in the production of crucible steel which laid the basis of Sheffield’s steel industry. Sheffield’s light trades remained important even after Thomas Bessemer’s inventions allowed the production of steel in bulk from the middle of the nineteenth century. As, thanks to Bessemer, huge steel plants appeared in the city, making rails, steel plates and armaments, the transformative effect of the new technologies was evident in the physical fabric of the city itself. As early as 1768, a visitor commented that ‘Sheffield is very large and populous, but exceedingly dirty and ill paved. What makes it more disagreeable is the excessive smoke from the great multitude of forges which the town is crowded with’. By 1842, the social reformer Edwin Chadwick declared that ‘Sheffield is one of the dirtiest and smokiest towns I ever saw. One cannot be long in the town without experiencing the necessary inhalation of soot…There are however numbers of persons in Sheffield who think the smoke healthy’. The importance of industry in the history of Sheffield in the Victorian town hall, which is surmounted by a statue of Vulcan and incorporates statues of figures representing electricity and steam who hold scrolls with the names of such great technological pioneers as Watt, Stephenson, Faraday and Davy.
In this Victorian view, the Industrial Revolution was the achievement of technological genius and enterprise. If this was indeed the case, then perhaps the digital world does have something to learn from its industrial great-grandparents. This view still holds sway, as is suggested by a recent comment of the Sheffield MP Nick Clegg that it was the likes of Brunel not the bankers who made Britain great. However, since the Great Western Railway cost 6,500,000 million pounds (over 300 million pounds in modern value, and twice the original estimate), presumably the bankers were of assistance in facilitating this technological revolution at some point. For politicians, it is convenient to hope that genius and inventiveness can quickly bring prosperity and wealth. But the history of industrialization suggests that this process of change can be amorphous, patchy in impact and above all subject to long timescales. Just like the printing revolution of Gutenberg, the industrial revolution dissolves under closer examination and become very difficult to pin down.
The term industrial revolution was not used as a shorthand for the changes which began in Britain until the late nineteenth century. It expressed the idea that Britain had gone through changes at this time which comparable in scale and importance to the political revolutions in France and Germany. Clearly something of profound importance had happened in Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century, but economic historians have struggled to get a clear view of the nature and structure of the process. The period from 1760 to 1830 was characterized by a wealth of disruptive innovation, yet most recent research suggests that economic growth during this period was not particularly marked. It appears that productivity growth and technological progress were confined to a few small sectors such as cotton, wool, iron and machinery in remote regions such as south Yorkshire, whereas much of the rest of manufacturing remained stagnant until after 1830. For some historians, the important features of early industrialization were not so much economic developments or technological changes as the social and cultural changes introduced by the growth of factory working and changes in farming. Just like the printing revolution or the Arab Spring, the Industrial Revolution proves to closer examination to be a much more complex and amorphous process than is suggested by the use of the word revolution.
This is vividly illustrated by the story of industrial development in Sheffield, which has been described by such distinguished historians from Sheffield University as Sidney Pollard and David Hey. Like other major industrial cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow, industrialization did not take place in Sheffield by accident. The availability of water power had made Sheffield a centre of craft production of cutlery since the middle ages. It was partly the availability of skill and expertise in metal working which encouraged the scientific instrument maker Benjamin Huntsman to move from Doncaster to Sheffield to undertake his experiments in creating crucible steel. However, despite Huntsman’s innovation in steelmaking, the initial industrial growth in Sheffield was in its historic light trades such as the making of tools, cutlery and silver plate. The techniques in Sheffield’s light trades changed very slowly. Before 1850, the only major change was the use of steam instead of water to drive the wheels used by grinders. The light trades remained dominated by the ‘small mesters’ who hired rooms in works with steam-powered wheels. It was only in the 1850s that factory production and mechanization began to be introduced in the light trades. Similarly, steel production and heavy industry only began to dominate Sheffield from 1850, chiefly as a result of the establishment by Henry Bessemer in 1859 of a steelworks using his new method of bulk steel production. The creation of heavy industry in Sheffield was a product of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Between 1851 and 1891, employment increased over 300% in the heavy trades, compared with 50% in the light trades. In 1851, less than a quarter of the workers in the city were employed in heavy industry; by 1891, two thirds of the city’s workers worked in heavy industry.
We assume that new digital technologies will very rapidly bring major cultural and social transformations in their wake, but the lessons of industrialization suggest that the process may be longer and more complex than we generally imagine. Huntsman first produced crucible steel in the 1740s and steam power arrived in the city in 1786, yet it took nearly a hundred years for Sheffield to become a steel city. The history of industrialization suggests that the process of digital transformation may be both more extended and more complex than is often assumed. The model of disruptive innovation is not a helpful way of imaging the process of industrialization. It was actually the ability of industrialization not to disrupt but instead to support sustained change which was important. In Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘The Industrial Revolution was “revolutionary” because the technological progress it witnessed and the subsequent transformation of the economy were not ephemeral events and moved society to a permanent different economic trajectory’. (p. 3) If industrialization is seen in this way, as a sustained trajectory of economic change, it is a process which still continues, and the digital world can simply be seen as an extension of a process which began in the eighteenth century. Indeed, this continuity can be seen as stretching further back. As we have noted, Sheffield’s growth reflected skills developed since the Middle Ages, and such long-standing commercial traditions fed into the early development of industrialisation.
The Industrial Revolution suggests that the model of disruption and transformation we use in thinking about the digital world may be over-simplistic. Are there other ways in which thinking about industrialization can help us in understanding the digital world? I would like to suggest that there are. In thinking about the digital humanities, we tend to focus our attention on tools and methods, but it is striking that in cities like Sheffield and Birmingham at the time of industrialization, tools and working methods often did not greatly change, but environment did. Sidney Pollard has pointed out how ‘a visitor to the metalworking areas of Birmingham or Sheffield in the mid nineteenth-century would have found little to distinguish them superficially from the same industries a hundred years earlier. The men worked as independent sub-contractors in their own or rented workshops using their own or hired equipment … These industries .. were still waiting for their Industrial Revolution’. Yet, as Pollard emphasized, the environment in which these workmen operated had been completely transformed. Their wheels were now powered by steam and there were other gadgets which speeded up minor operations such as stamping and cutting. The workshop might be lit by gas and have a water supply. Railways made distribution easier and cheaper and gave access to a larger labour market. Cheap printing would assist in advertising products. While the ‘small mester’ may have been working in an old-fashioned way, his environment had been completed transformed. Likewise, it may be that the most important changes in the digital humanities will be in the environment in which researchers into the humanities operate, and we should perhaps be giving more attention to this.
The fascination of the digital lies in its immense variety: 3D printing, multispectral imaging, mobile technologies, RFID: these all have their part to play in humanities scholarship as well as more familiar methods as linked data, geo-spatial visualisations, text encoding and many others. This need for a pluralistic outlook in dealing with the digital is one that is reinforced by the history of industrialization. While developments such as steam, telegraph and steelmaking were important, they only formed a part of an enormous spectrum of technological developments. It is striking how the interests of such celebrated figures of the Industrial Revolution as James Watt were very wide. Watt was as preoccupied with the making of musical instruments or the copying of sculpture as he was in the application of steam power. Likewise, among Thomas Bessemer’s inventions were an early type-composing machine, new methods of making pencils, machines for making plate glass and an (unsuccessful) ship to avoid seasickness, as well as his new method of steel manufacture. The examples of men like Watt and Bessemer remind us of the importance of an eclectic approach to the digital humanities, of embracing an approach that affirms that there is no single answer, no single piece of kit or method which will unlock the digital humanities. Digital transformations will involve a variety of approaches, embracing both risky short-term experimentation and support for sustainability, embracing both mash-ups made in bedrooms and experiments with synchrotrons, as well as digital art works and huge quantitative visualisations. The digital humanities will not only be a critical and theoretical debate but will also code. It encompasses both data and materiality.
While we tend to associate the Industrial Revolution with such major inventions as the steam engine, a key driver of industrialization was the small improvement or adjustment – tinkering with and progressively improving technology. The first steam engine was built by Thomas Newcomen at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Watt’s invention of the separate steam condenser was a microinvention which made steam power economically viable. Watt’s low pressure steam engine was not suitable for locomotives, and it was further refinements by many others which eventually made a high pressure steam engine practicable. It is tempting to assume that economic transformation is associated with the paradigm shifting macroinvention, but this is not necessarily the case. Two of the great macroinventions of the eighteenth century, the hot air balloon and the smallpox vaccine, had limited economic impact, whereas Henry Cort’s invention of puddling and rolling was technically modest, but by allowing the production of wrought iron had enormous economic impact. We are regularly urged by research councils and others to deliver the macro-invention, to demonstrate the paradigm shift. Yet the history of industrialization suggests that the small improvement, the micro-invention, can be more important. Moreover, it is perhaps precisely this kind of micro-improvement that the digital humanities is particularly well placed to deliver.
Some of the technical developments of the Industrial Revolution were linked to new scientific theories. Watt’s separate condenser was influenced by the theory of latent heat proposed by Watt’s mentor at the University of Glasgow, Joseph Black. However, for the most part, as Joel Mokyr has observed, ‘The inventions that set the British changes in motion were largely the result of mechanical intuition and dexterity, the product of technically brilliant but basically empirical tinkerers, or ‘technical designers’’ (p. 75). The late eighteenth century was a period of scientific and technological ferment, but this took place outside any formal academic structure. This is illustrated again by James Watt in Glasgow. James Watt is one of the outstanding names associated with the University of Glasgow, but he was never a member of the University’s academic staff. He was employed to repair scientific instruments. It was in the process of repairing a model of a steam engine owned by the University that Watt hit on the idea of a separate condenser. Although Watt wasn’t a lecturer but a mere craftsman, his workshop became the intellectual hub of the University. His friend John Robison, who afterwards became Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow, recalled how: ‘All the young lads of our little place that were any way remarkable for scientific predilection were acquaintances of Mr Watt; and his parlour was a rendezvous for all of his description. Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of us, we went to Mr Watt. He needed only to be prompted; everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study; and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificance, or had made something of it’.
Watt was not exceptional. In Sheffield, Benjamin Huntsman was also a scientific instrument maker. Sheffield plating was accidentally discovered in 1743 by a Sheffield cutler Thomas Boulsover while repairing a customer’s knife. Henry Bessemer received only elementary schooling, preferring to gain practical experience in his father’s type foundry. When Bessemer was invited to describe his steel process to the British Association, he protested that he had ‘never written or read a paper to a learned society’. Stainless steel was developed in Sheffield in 1913 not in the University but in the research laboratory of the steel firms Firth and Brown by Harry Brearley, a self-taught metallurgist who had never received any formal education. One of the great challenges which digital technologies present us is the need also to develop spaces which allow theory, making and tinkering to collide – a digital equivalent of Watt’s workshop at Glasgow. Ideally, this would be precisely what a digital humanities centre should be like, but sadly we have rarely achieved this. The pressure of university funding structures means that most digital humanities centres are soft-funded and are on a treadmill of project funding which restricts the ability to act as centres for innovative thinking. Moreover, in Britain at least, universities are increasingly making a stronger distinction between academic and professional staff. This is without doubt a retrograde development, but the political and administrative drivers behind it are formidable. In this context, it is difficult to see how digital humanities centres can become more like Watt’s workshop or Harry Brearley’s laboratory at Firth and Brown, yet I think we must try.
Such new spaces of making and collaboration of course need not necessarily be physical spaces, but they must embrace different skills, outlooks and conversations. We need to create spaces which would embrace the digital equivalent of a James Watt or a Harry Brearley. The creation of such spaces was a fundamental feature of early industrialization. Economic historians are increasingly emphasizing the role of social capital as fundamental to understanding early British industrialization. Historians have frequently been puzzled as to why the first industrialization occurred in Britain. There were other more technologically advanced countries such as France. It seems that an important part of the reason for Britain’s early lead was that it had social structures which facilitated the spread of ideas and the making of contacts and partnerships. The multitude of clubs and societies in eighteenth-century Britain helped spread expertise and encourage new enterprises. A celebrated example is the Lunar Society, based in the West Midlands, which include many of the mos famous names of the period such as Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin. Such friendships were vital to the new enterprises. Watt had struggled to develop his team engine in Glasgow, but Boulton in Birmingham had access to the necessary precision craftsmanship which allowed the successful manufacture of steam engines. Moreover, while the specializations of the Lunar Society were distinct, their fascinations overlapped tremendously--so they were able to support each other's ideas and endeavors well outside their own field proper in a kind of early inter-disciplinarity. The Lunar Society was not exceptional. Britain contained hundreds of philosophical clubs, masonic lodges and statistical societies which were essential in encouraging that hands-on, tinkering culture which encouraged early industrialization.
We may feel that in learned societies like ALLC or ADHO we have the equivalent of a Lunar Society in digital humanities. But the model of something like ALLC is that of a nineteenth-century learned society, and the Lunar Society was more flexible and informal than that. Bodies like the ALLC or ADHO are designed to affirm the respectability and seriousness of their members, to show that they are worthy professional people. But the informal, drunken societies of the eighteenth century show the value of using much looser and informal arrangements to generate social capital. We need to think about how we can recreate that kind of eighteenth century social excitement in the digital sphere. What is particularly important about these eighteenth century clubs is that they operated a particularly big tent. There was not set view in the eighteenth century as to whether the engineer or the money man should take the lead. It has been suggested that the key skill was ‘to identify a need or opportunity, then cooperate with others who possessed a different skill to take advantage of it’. This description of the skills necessary for success in the eighteenth century is, I would suggest, equally applicable to the digital world. However, in the eighteenth century this also involved an appetite for risk. Watt was constantly terrified by what he saw as Boulton’s imprudence. Two of the greatest engineers and entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, Richard Trevithick and Richard Roberts, died penniless. I wonder whether, in the dot.com age, we have the same appetite for risk.
But what is particularly striking about industrialization is the passion for making. John Robison described how for James Watt, ‘everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study; and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificance, or had made something of it. No matter in what line – languages, antiquity, natural history, - nay, poetry, criticism, and works of taste; as to anything in the line of engineering, whether civil or military, he was at home, and a ready instructor’. According to Robison when Watt was asked to repair the University of Glasgow’s model steam engine, it was ‘at first a fine plaything to Mr Watt…But like everything which came into his hands, it soon became an object of most serious study’. The mixture of play, tinkering, science and hands-on experimentation is the most powerful legacy of the Industrial Revolution and it is in that art of making, that materiality, that perhaps the most potent legacy of industrialization lies.
For Watt and the others, this making was an aspect of data. One of Watt’s earliest inventions was a perspective machine to assist artists. One great contribution of the Soho Manufactory was the production of the first precise slide rules, essential to calculate boiler pressures. Watt envisaged the production of a mechanical calculating machine, but felt that the engineering techniques of the time could not produce sufficiently precise parts – a problem that Babbage was later to encounter. Towards the end of his life, Watt became preoccupied with developing a sculpture copying machine and his workshop was littered with busts and casts associated with this project. The creation of this machine required both accurate data and methods to make the sculpture – as a mixture of issues of data and making, it was very characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. When the contents of Watt’s workshop were recently moved into a new display at the Science Museum, a mould of an unknown bust was found there. It was realized that the mould could be imaged and the resulting 3d model could be used to print out the bust. The work was done by a team from Geomatic Engineering at UCL, and when the bust was printed, it was found to be a previously unknown bust of James Watt (For more on this, see: www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/9892)
This exercise seems to me to bring the story full circle, and the way in which new methods of fabrication are giving use new approaches to data seems to me to bring the story full circle. Industrialisation and making will, it seems to me, become more pertinent than ever as digital fabrication becomes increasingly important. I’d like to conclude my lecture by quickly sharing with you some video clips that seem to me to make this point very well. The first is a news report on an exhibition last year at the V&A called, appropriately enough, Industrial Revolution 2.0:
Industrial Revolution 2.0: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUo6EqAix-o
From this it is a short step to using fabrication machines to replicate objects in museums, and this clip shows the Makerbot, an affordable 3d fabricator, used to replicate objects in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I hardly need to point out the parallekls with James Watts’s sculpture copying machine:
Through a Scanner, Getty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blKcIsEEoag
The Makerbot was recently used for a hackathon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in which artists used fabrications of objects in the Museum’s collection to create new works of art. Here’s a short glimpse of the evenr in Bew York in June:
Met Makerbot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1dqXVe2GVo
It is striking how in these clips there are frequent references to revolutions and disruptions. What I think we have seen is that in fact these new methods echo deeper continuities. The Arab Spring, the arrival of printing and the Industrial Revolution all show us how change is not necessarily revolutionary or disruptive. The processes we think of as revolutionary can be lengthy, patchy in character, amorphous, difficult to measure and unpredictable, and there is no reason to think that the digital will be any different. It’s the continuities and the parallels that are often as striking as the disruptions. Let me end with one last quick clip which shows the Fab Lab in Manchester which to my mind inescapably recalls James Watts’s workshop in Glasgow, and points us towards one digital space of the future which is deeply rooted in the past:
Fab Lab Manchester: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1S8_K2ctNWs