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The Romantic Machine

Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

The Romantic Machine

Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

In the years immediately following Napoleon’s defeat, French thinkers in all fields set their minds to the problem of how to recover from the long upheavals that had been set into motion by the French Revolution. Many challenged the Enlightenment’s emphasis on mechanics and questioned the rising power of machines, seeking a return to the organic unity of an earlier age and triggering the artistic and philosophical movement of romanticism. Previous scholars have viewed romanticism and industrialization in opposition, but in this groundbreaking volume John Tresch reveals how thoroughly entwined science and the arts were in early nineteenth-century France and how they worked together to unite a fractured society.

Focusing on a set of celebrated technologies, including steam engines, electromagnetic and geophysical instruments, early photography, and mass-scale printing, Tresch looks at how new conceptions of energy, instrumentality, and association fueled such diverse developments as fantastic literature, popular astronomy, grand opera, positivism, utopian socialism, and the Revolution of 1848. He shows that those who attempted to fuse organicism and mechanism in various ways, including Alexander von Humboldt and Auguste Comte, charted a road not taken that resonates today.

Essential reading for historians of science, intellectual and cultural historians of Europe, and literary and art historians, The Romantic Machine is poised to profoundly alter our understanding of the scientific and cultural landscape of the early nineteenth century.

472 pages | 46 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: European History, History of Technology

History of Science

Music: General Music


“A work which brings into glittering relief the materials of scientific exploration in the early nineteenth century and reveals how scientists were, beyond the ostensible field of enquiry, profoundly engaged with the emotive, social and spiritual dimensions of their discoveries. . . . Of certain appeal to historians of science and scholars in popular culture The Romantic Machine . . . makes a distinct contribution to the study of technological thought, and gestures frequently towards the work of figures as diverse as Bergson, Deleuze, and Simondon.”

Greg Kerr, University of Glasgow | Nineteenth-Century French Studies


P. D. Skiff, Bard College | Choice

“Tresch’s work contains many interesting and provocative insights. . . . [It] belongs in every research library.”

Jeff Horn, Manhattan College | American Historical Review

“Tresch offers something new and exciting to historians of nineteenth-century France. His effort will hopefully encourage other innovative perspectives on the relationship between the arts and sciences.”

Robert D. Priest, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge | Reviews in History

“Illuminating a spectrum of heterodox approaches grouped under the umbrella term ‘mechanical romanticism,’ Tresch makes an insistent and compelling case for why the current cultural impasse between science- and creative-types is far from inevitable. In this vision, sound science need not transpire without a lyrical core, while efficiency need not obviate moments of effusive, ecstatic connection.”

Courtney Fiske | Brooklyn Rail

“Tresch’s book restores to machines the dignity of wonder, of experimentation, openness, and beauty. It does so without neglecting the inexorable logic of material components, of thermodynamic laws, and of scientific axioms, and without blindness for the social and economic forces to which industrial machines will be subjected. The Romantic Machine not only describes utopian science and technology, but is itself a messenger from a utopia where technical objects regain their language and become agents in the complex history of nineteenth-century culture.”

Helmut Muller-Sievers | Centaurus

“John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. . . . [A] major tour de force.”

Benjamin Bâcle | French Studies

“This is one of the rare products of our field that can be recommended with confidence to readers yet to be persuaded of the centrality of science and its applications in the fashioning of Western literate culture. It is a fascinating book and a must for anyone seeking to get to grips with the complex, knotty roots of modernity.”

Robert Fox | Metascience

"Erudite and engaging. . . . Tresch’s study has the potential to transform how we understand the nineteenth century. The wide range of ’machines’ at work in this study as well as the cultural arguments it makes also means that this study reaches far beyond any narrow definition of the history of science and technology."

Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies

“Tresch’s focus on specific material objects is immensely rewarding; through them, he is able to uncover an entire world that rejected the binary of living/mechanical that we have come to see as inevitable.”

Theresa Levitt | Technology and Culture

The Romantic Machine is a boldly original and riotously interdisciplinary essay in the history of science that reinterprets romanticism for our own era. Situated within a dense fabric of political, moral, aesthetic, and epistemological concerns, Tresch’s early nineteenth-century ‘mechanical romantics’ reject human mastery over nature as the goal of science, opting instead for limited regulation and sustainable coexistence.”

Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

“In this fascinating and philosophically rich tale, Tresch re-invokes a world in which machines are not unnatural, dead mechanisms but vessels, affordances, ‘organs’ even, of nature’s expansive self-expression. These romantic machines and charismatic technologies could—and still do—draw forth invisible powers within materialities human and not. Tresch’s account of the ‘alchemical conjunction of romanticism and mechanism’ is itself a brilliant admixture of the history of science, nature-philosophy, and political theory. A wonderful and rewarding book.”

Jane Bennett, Johns Hopkins University

“With The Romantic Machine, John Tresch fulfills the goal of most recent history of science: to show that when you follow scientific achievements you end up describing a whole culture, including its literature and arts. By proposing a new interpretation of post-Napoleonic Paris’s material culture, Tresch shows the fecundity of his notion of cosmogram as the foundation of a different historical anthropology, one that includes science and technology and is not led by any teleology toward ‘modernity.’ On the contrary, by reinterpreting romanticism, he shows how much we could learn from this early nineteenth century period for understanding our own contradictory cosmograms today.”

Bruno Latour, Sciences Po Paris

Table of Contents

Preface: Absolute and In-between
1 Introduction: Mechanical Romanticism

2 Ampère’s Experiments: Contours of a Cosmic Substance
3 Humboldt’s Instruments: Even the Tools Will Be Free
4 Arago’s Daguerreotype: The Labor Theory of Knowledge

5 The Devil’s Opera: Fantastic Physiospiritualism
6 Monsters, Machine-Men, Magicians: The Automaton in the Garden

7 Saint-Simonian Engines: Love and Conversions
8 Leroux’s Pianotype: The Organogenesis of Humanity
9 Comte’s Calendar: From Infinite Universe to Closed World

10 Conclusion: Afterlives of the Romantic Machine



Council for European Studies at Columbia University: Council for European Studies Book Award
Honorable Mention

History of Science Society: Pfizer Award

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