The Changing Notion Of Steam Engine Spectacle

October 20th, 2010

The World's Smallest Working Steam Engine

Centennial Exhibition. Philadelphia, PA. 1876.

These two images, from vastly different time periods, speak to how greatly the steam engine has changed, but more importantly how man’s fascination with technology has held strong yet has altered in its purpose.

The older image is of the Corliss steam engine which was used to power all of the exhibits in the Centennial Convention of 1876, held in Philadelphia, PA. The grand stature of this steam engine is the most immediate and obvious aspect of it. Due to the work being in black and white, it is hard to make out all of the details of the engine, but the numerous ladders, and three floors/decks really spell out how enormous it is. Surrounded by rails and what appear to be guards, it is apparent that this  was a highly valuable piece of machinery as the power source for all the other exhibits. This also makes the engine itself a form of display and showcasing of the technological powers, as all around it there are people marveling.

In some ways, the greyscale color scheme informs the aspects of technology of becoming an overwhelming force in society, as it gives off a somewhat dark, ominous feeling. With all the people gathered, yet none of them that greatly detailed, it conveys a sense of technology taking focus over people, and the attendance of the people somewhat signifying an acquiesce to this new, dominant being.

In the former, more recent picture, is a photograph of the world’s record for smallest working steam engine, as constructed by Iqbal Ahmed of Nagpur, India. The size of the engine is accentuated via the comparison with Ahmed’s thumb. This record stands as on accomplishment on very debatable grounds, as examination of this steam engine shows it to be “working” in only a technical sense, as one would be hard-pressed to find a useful application for such a tiny engine. This miniature engine symbolizes some of the minutia of purpose that some technological exploits are grounded in during modern times: no change or improvement is brought out through this, but more of a celebration of an individual’s talent/abilities.

Study of the thumb works to symbolize the effects of technology and man’s constant connection to it throughout history. Ahmed’s thumb shows the wear-and-tear of a man who, as a 61 year old 9th grade drop-out, has spent most of his life in workshops and machinery; he started his steam-engine making in 1975. The callouses and indents shown on his thumb exemplify the dedication and obsession man has with technology and to achieve it’s desired creations. Furthermore, with how small the engine is compared to the human aspect, this ironically comments on how our obsession with technology has led to it being so compressed that it is sometimes forgotten what an impact it has on human life.

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