What did the future look like in 1820s Britain? Poking fun at liberal ambitions for education reform, the rapid pace of industrialization, and a fashionable interest in applied knowledge, William Heath’s March of Intellect series offered a satirical vision of the wonders and potential cost of progress. While extravagantly dressed ladies window-shop for pastel finery and forgo stairwells in favor of belt-driven slides, a child is moments away from being paved into the road by a carriage at full gallop. The automation of domestic labor — through a device called the “Grand Servant Superseding Apparatus for doing every kind of household work &c &c &c &c” — leaves women more time for recreation (or idle folly): smoking shisha in public, riding horsy hovercrafts, and traveling effortlessly to South America, Bengal, and Cape Town through the use of vacuum tubes, accelerator bridges, and pedestrian tunnels. Men gorge themselves on pineapples and guzzle bottles at the Champagne Depot. Postmen flit around with winged capes; a clocked-in shoeshiner has the time to read a newspaper in French, thanks to his boot-cleaning engine. Even convicts have it better: they embark for New South Wales on a gargoyle zeppelin, but still have panoramic views.
In their imagination and satire, Heath’s prints reflected debates about the early-nineteenth century “March of the Intellect” or “March of the Mind”. For those who championed progress, this period roared with possibility. Encyclopædia Britannica first became available to the British public in 1771; by the early nineteenth-century, at least fourteen major encyclopedias, and reams of subject-specific dictionaries, were passing through all kinds of British hands. Magazines, reference books, and lending libraries rapidly circulated knowledge beyond the portered gates of elite institutions. Organizations like the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge promoted mass education as a mode of political reform. If knowledge was truth, then trustworthiness and moral action could be inculcated in the middle and working classes by providing autodidacts with affordable materials. That was part of the worry. Not only did the democratization of learning threaten an old cultural regime and potentially stoke the kind popular unrest seen in the Spa Fields riots and Peterloo Massacre, its liberal gloss was marred by suspicions about the machinations of political economy: “many believed that knowledge was foisted by the powerful and wealthy on the working classes in order to indoctrinate them into a culture where knowledge validated a simple work ethic”, writes Alan Rauch in Useful Knowledge.
We find a more apocalyptic vision of the future in Robert Seymour’s 1820s The March of the Intellect, where a jolly automaton stomps across society. Its head is a literal stack of knowledge — tomes of history, philosophy, and mechanic manuals power two gas-lantern eyes. It wears secular London University as a crown. The machine smokes while crusading, blowing hot-air-balloon follies from a pipe bowl, carried on the breath of its menacing exhalation: “I Come I Come!!”. Wielding a straw broom, capped with the head of reformer Henry Brougham, it sweeps away all potential encumbrances. Gone are the pleas, pleadings, delayed parliamentary bills, and obsolete laws. Vicars, rectors, and quack doctors are turned on their heads. Like Frankenstein’s creature, birthed from a pick ‘n’ mix of exhumed organs and ossified science, the monster in this satirical cartoon is patchwork knowledge itself, practically applied and made widely available for the very first time.
Fifty years after these prints appeared, Shanghai merchant guilds would attempt to prohibit silk filatures driven by steam to protect handicraft workers. A half-century later, John Maynard Keynes forecasted a future of “technological unemployment”. Fifty years after that, the General Motors Corporation announced a lights-out “factory of the future” to be run by robots in Saganaw, Michigan. And, in 2023, artificially intelligent chatbots have fueled ongoing anxieties about the mechanization of intellectual labor. In an era when “full automation” seems to mean anything but “less work”, the projections of these images — whether earnest or caustic — let us glimpse what the future might have looked like, and what it could still be.