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  • The Rise of Thermodynamics:Mechanical Engineering and Byron's Poetic Machinery
  • Andrew Barbour

"If it is necessary to find a virtue in technology," Paul de Man remarks in "The Temptation of Permanence," "it is that it is too rude to offer even a simulacrum of appeasement."1 As it "burns history without leaving material residue, technology forces us to rid ourselves of what is only after all a false serenity," the temptation of permanence.2 If de Man's tropic language turns away from technology—too rude—it at once turns towards its mechanical power to burn through any illusion of material permanence, with or without residue. As will become clear, de Man's notion of technology burning history implies a historical consciousness of the thermodynamic logic of machinery that emerges out of the steam engine and is now burnt into Anthropocene history, often dated to James Watt's 1784 patent of the steam engine, also known in Lord Byron's time as the fire engine.3 Thermodynamics arises out of late 18th- and early 19th-century mechanical engineering—leading up to Sadi Carnot's 1824 reflections on the fire engine—as a figure for the dissipation of human mechanical power and the impermanence of the material universe.4 Much recent work in Victorian studies has attended to the figurative resources of thermodynamics; yet its Romantic origins and impact on Romantic aesthetics have received little attention. I begin by recovering the thermodynamic logic of machinery in Romantic era engineering and painting over the 1810s-20s, culminating in the work of J. M. W. Turner and Carnot. Next, taking a closer look at the rise of thermodynamics in Romantic poetics, I turn to Byron as a case study to recover the engineering poetics that he develops around 1820 as he pioneers a new thermodynamic logic of poetic machinery. I close by reflecting on the critical value of Byron's thermodynamic logic of machinery for Anthropocene thought today. The first aim of this essay, then, is to recover a neglected history of the emergence of modern engineering in the Romantic period, and its thermodynamic aesthetics. My second aim is to demonstrate how the rise of modern engineering (in a much more pragmatic form than the Newtonian science it displaced) directly influenced Byron's poetics, as he came to define his poetic vocation as "my post as an engineer."5 Romantic [End Page 107] poetry and engineering shared a thermodynamic aesthetics fueled by a mutual question: what work can we realistically expect material forms to achieve when they operate under strict constraints of perpetual energy loss and unavoidable physical attrition? That question continues to bear on how we approach poetry and machinery today, and what we might anticipate from aesthetics and engineering in the Anthropogenic age that we share with Romanticism.


Mechanical engineering marks the transition between simple mechanics and thermodynamics: between the perfect world of Newtonian mechanics ordered by rational principles of motion and a world in which nothing is permanent except for change itself. While thermodynamics is formalized in the 1850s, its core principles arise over the time of British Romanticism with the emergence of engineering.6 Michel Serres writes, "As soon as one can build them and theorize about … steam or combustion engines … the notion of time changes. The second law of thermodynamics accounts for the impossibility of perpetual motion. … Energy dissipates, and entropy increases."7 With the engine, force passes from the "rationalized" or "mathematical real" (H, 58) of Newtonian mechanics—which abstracted from matter to treat the motion of figures as perpetually reversible, unchanged by friction—to matter itself, in which the production and dissipation of mechanical power by friction is evidence of "an unceasing mutual interchange of figure," as one engineer put it in the 1810s.8 No more transcendence, only material finitude. Engineers over the time of Romanticism discovered what became the first law of thermodynamics, which formalizes the conservation of energy: that energy is neither created or destroyed but translated.9 The energy concept depends upon the mechanical theory of heat: that all force is materially equivalent to heat or motion. Heat is not a separate substance but simply the effect of...


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pp. 107-131
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