The Steam Engine by Dionysius Lardner, 1839

The importance of the steam engine to industrial development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been well documented and its impact on science, technology and manufacturing continues to be assessed.  However, the role played by print culture in discourses regarding the steam engine has not yet been fully considered.  This research project looked at the role played by printed material in the dissemination of knowledge concerning the steam engine.

With a view to taking a more detailed project forward, a scoping project was initially undertaken to identify primary sources and more detailed research questions.  The innovations of James Watt and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, were placed at the core of the project, which centred around two areas: Boulton and Watt's engagement with print culture and representations of the steam engine in various print culture streams.

Three ways in which Boulton and Watt used print culture were identified: to sell their engines; to protect their innovations and to enhance Watt's reputation. The various print culture streams that Boulton and Watt engaged with were highlighted, from newspapers to pamphlets, poetry to encyclopaedias.

The print culture streams with which Boulton and Watt engaged were also used by others, and a vast amount of popular printed material in which the steam engine was represented began to appear in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  These works cross over from the professional and specialist technical sphere, into the popular and leisured one.  As the eighteenth century progressed a new and expanding market for printed material stimulated a proliferation of all kinds of popular works.  Many authors, such as Dionysis Lardner, identified a general audience who were ‘impelled by choice rather than necessity’ to pick up a book on the steam engine and who were looking to find ‘pleasure derivable from the instances of ingenuity’ in its pages.  Within the many different genres that were available to the newly literate public, the steam engine was represented in a multitude of ways and this public were also coming face to face with the new technology, as it changed their own working and domestic lives. 

Having identified so much primary material worthy of further research, the conclusion of this initial research project is that further work on the relationship between the steam engine and print culture is merited, because several research questions have been raised around the following areas:

  • The early uses of print media by Boulton and Watt to create narratives of the steam engine, innovation, and Watt as new hero of the industrial revolution;
  • How the steam engine was represented in different genres of printed material;
  • How those printed works helped to create cultural meanings around the object of the steam engine;
  • How steam technology drove developments in the book and printing trades and how this stimulated the growth of literature about the steam engine. 

Dr Kate Croft


Related Researchers

Dr Kate Croft

Dr Malcolm Dick