The March of Intellect

I am grateful to John Ptak for posting on his blog this fine image made by cartoonist William Heath in the 1820s:


A monstrous mechanical figure, fashioned from steam-powered printing presses with gaslight eyes and a brain of books on history, philosophy, mechanics and “enquiry” topped with a “crown of many towers” representing “London University” sweeps lawyers, quacks, clergymen, symbols of superstition and other “rubbish” out of the way as it apparently strives to rescue a bare-breasted female figure (liberty?). You can read the inscription for yourself of course, but here it is with my modernizations of some of the spellings and punctuation:

I saw a vision. A giant form appeared. Its eyes were burning lights even of gas and on its learned head it bore a crown of many towers. Its body was an engine, yea, of steam. Its arms were iron and the legs with which it strode like unto presses that men called printers use from whence fell ever and anon small books that fed the little people of the earth. It rose, and in its hand it took a broom to sweep the rubbish from the face of the land. The special pleaders and their wigs also and the quack doctors also and the ghosts and those that wear horns and the crowns of those kings that set themselves above the laws and the delays in chancery it utterly destroyed. Likewise, it swept from the clergy every plurality. Nevertheless, the lawyers and the parsons and diverse others kicked up a great dust!

One possible target of Heath’s satire in this cartoon is the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham with its “felicific calculus” of the total pleasure and pain resulting from any given act and its advocacy of universal education and enthusiastic adoption of new technologies at the expense of traditional notions of justice and concern with individual suffering (hence the sweeping away of “rubbish” lawyers and clergy). Deep irony lies in the fact that the characterization of intellect – the supposed engine of human liberation – is itself inhuman, monstrous and quite probably outside of human control.

Heath made other engravings under the ‘March of Intellect’ title. Here’s another example courtesy of the Wellcome Library:

Bearing the legend Lord how this world improves as we grow older, it depicts scientific and technological advances of the day put to use in a variety of ways that all seem to threaten social upheaval one way or another. Again, intellectual and technical solutions to problems go on to create more problems of their own.

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