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Machines made out of words: Inaugural lecture with Professor John Gardner

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Are literature and engineering connected together? This talk will focus on the interaction between literature, politics and engineering in the early nineteenth century. Recent campaigns to put the Arts into STEM to create STEAM have cited facts such as Nobel Laureates in the sciences are 17 times more likely to also be painters and 12 times more to be poets. Connectivity between disciplines was readily apparent in the Romantic period, a time when mechanical engineering progressed most: ‘In 1775 the machine tools at the disposal of industry had scarcely advanced beyond those available in the Middle Ages; by 1850 the majority of modern machine-tools had been invented’ (Gilbert). 

Poets and novelists have long expressed connections between engineering and literature: William Godwin wrote ‘Few engines can be more powerful, and at the same time more salutary in their tendency, than literature.’ Percy Shelley was engaged in building a boat engine; Mary Shelley wrote in her journal: ‘Shelley reads Calderon, and talks about the steam-engine’; Thomas Love Peacock championed steam navigation; James Joyce called himself the ‘one of the greatest Engineers’, and William Carlos Williams wrote that ‘a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words’.

This talk will argue that literature and engineering share many aims, and that these disciplines are related.

John Gardner is Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University, where he began working in 2004, after studying, then teaching, at the University of Glasgow. John has written a range of articles on authors and topics in the fields of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature and culture, and is the author of Poetry and Popular Protest; Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

This talk is part of the Anglia Ruskin University - Community Engagement series.

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