Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Engines of Our IngenuityAn Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture$
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content.

John H. Lienhard

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135831

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195135831.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 31 July 2021

Heroic Materialism

Heroic Materialism

Chapter:
(p.179) 13 Heroic Materialism
Source:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity
Author(s):

John H. Lienhard

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780195135831.003.0015

When Kenneth Clark wrote the concluding section of his magnificent thirteen-part television series, Civilisation, he gave it the title “Heroic Materialism.” The series had been based on Clark’s definition of civilization. Each part displayed an epoch of Western history marked by particular creative energy. Clark finished by showing how, in the early days of the nineteenth century, engineers began building a new world of cast iron—a man-made material world of heroic proportions. Clark’s title was a wry and masterful bit of misdirection, just as the great works he described have also misdirected our attention. If he had used the term heroic materialism to describe medieval cathedrals instead of the great engineering works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we might have balked. When we look at a Gothic cathedral we see not cold, material stone, but a flight of the human spirit. We see mind rising over matter. However, our first reaction is to accept Clark’s seeming claim that nineteenth-century iron was merely materialistic. It is a characterization that makes sense to us. But once he has shown the stereotypical view of things, Clark begins steering us in unexpected directions. He shows how all that heroic iron triggered a new spirit of social reform. By the end of the nineteenth century, Victorian iron had even played a role in bringing art back from heroic themes to the humanizing influence of the Impressionist artists. That should be no surprise since, as we have already stressed, machines relate directly and intimately to essential human needs, and they have always been an equalizing force in society. By the 1930s the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was proclaiming machinery and craftsmanship to be the one truth in a world full of lies: “Machines are truly humane, but we do not know machines.” He cried, “The world lacks harmonisers to make palpable the humane beauty of modern times.” In this chapter we look at the machine as a heroic figure, and what we see is a progression from megalomania to humanization—from the obsessiveness of Napoleon Bonaparte to the world-unifying effort to go into space.

Keywords:   bridges, education, iron, miniaturization, power generation, skyscrapers, telegraph

Oxford Scholarship Online requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books within the service. Public users can however freely search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter.

Please, subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you think you should have access to this title, please contact your librarian.

To troubleshoot, please check our FAQs , and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us .