An era mixing romance and science

It was a radical idea back then—and to a degree, it still is today. In the first half of the 19th century, influential French thinkers began to believe that the ideas and philosophies we now equate with romanticism actually encouraged the development of science and technology.

“We usually see those two movements, romanticism and industrialism, as being totally opposed,” says John Tresch, associate professor of history and sociology of science in the School of Arts & Sciences. “In fact, they really harmonized together in the 1830s and ‘40s and pushed each other along.”

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Tresch’s new book, “The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon,” explores the relationships between the two movements and the men at the forefront of them.

“It’s about the new machines of the industrial revolution, electromagnetism, steam engines, early photography, and the instruments of global geophysics and the ways in which those were seen as tapping into the hidden forces of nature,” Tresch explains. “With the use of these machines, it might be possible to bring those forces and potentials into activation and use them to remake the world. That means remaking nature, but also remaking society. Making a more equal, more holistic, more satisfying world for every member of it.”

Tresch’s interest emerged from an unexpected source: the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Tresch became immersed in Poe’s lesser-known work on science, machines, and the industrial revolution—material that is largely ignored by English scholars.

“The way that English and Americans have read him is just as a popular, juvenile author,” Tresch says. “But then there’s the French tradition, which takes him very seriously as a philosopher, as an artist. I got very interested in who the French people were who read Poe and took the scientific and philosophical side of his writing so seriously.”

Tresch spent countless hours at French universities and in places like the National Library in Paris learning more about the 19th century philosophers who had grand visions of how both nature and society could be rebuilt.

These men became the “heroes” in his book. Men like Francois Arago, an astronomer and engineer who believed that science needed to be used for social reform.    

“He thought you should always be thinking about the social consequences of technology, things like railroads and other innovations,” Tresch says. “And you should think about how teaching about science, like teaching astronomy, which he did in popular lectures that were aimed at everyone, can enlighten the masses. He believed that science should always be in the service of the people.”

This line of thinking bucks conventional wisdom, the classic idea that romantic poets and writers, people like Lord Byron and Wordsworth, would rather leave civilization and experience the wonders of nature, Tresch says.

“Those are the clichés about romanticism,” he says. “The form of romanticism that happens in France, which is often theatrical, is all happening in Paris. It’s urban, not pastoral, romanticism. And it’s being produced by people who are in constant dialogue with philosophers and scientists and engineers. So it takes this very different characteristic, which is not exclusively organic or exclusively imaginative, but is announcing ways for the organic and the mechanical to merge together.”

Among Tresch’s most surprising discoveries during his research was that people in the arts, literature, and politics interacted closely with those in the sciences and industry at that time.

“There were not very many people who were responsible for the whole popular culture,” he says. “They had no resistance to borrowing ideas across divides that we now see as uncrossable. An engineer would take up an idea of a poet, or an engineer would give his services to a playwright. An opera director would introduce electric lighting for the first time in stage design. These people all knew each other, and they were hanging out together all the time. That to me was amazing.”

The term “utopian,” so eye-catching in Tresch’s book title, often is taken to mean a place or state of bliss that never will exist. Sometimes, Tresch says, it can mean merely a better world.

“Some of the thinkers I write about thought that they could remake the very nature of science, redefine it so it wouldn’t necessarily be anymore the relation between the human mind and the external objective world, rather that our concepts and aspirations could be built into new kinds of concepts of organizing knowledge,” he says.

While his book studies the period from 1815 to 1848, many of its lessons are relevant today, he believes.

“We now seem to think what scientists do doesn’t have a lot of connection to and can’t contribute to what’s going on in the arts, and likewise that artists and philosophers and poets don’t have a lot to say to scientists,” Tresch says. “The hope is that we’re now in a period where those kinds of connections can be made a little more easily just like they were at that time.”

Originally published on December 13, 2012