Understanding history with new eyes

About Us

Living with Machines is both a research project, and a bold proposal for a new research paradigm. In this ground-breaking partnership between The Alan Turing Institute, the British Library, and the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Exeter, and London (QMUL, King’s College), historians, data scientists, geographers, computational linguists, and curators have been brought together to examine the human impact of industrial revolution.

This programme, funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priority Fund,  is a multidisciplinary collaboration delivered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), with The Alan Turing Institute, the British Library and the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Exeter, Queen Mary University of London, and King’s College London.

Project Reference: AH/S01179X/1

First industrial revolution

It is widely recognised that Britain was the birthplace of the world’s first industrial revolution, yet there is still much to learn about the human, social, and cultural consequences of this historical moment. Focussing on the long nineteenth century (c.1780-1920), the Living with Machines project aims to harness the combined power of massive digitised historical collections and computational analytical tools to examine the ways in which technology altered the very 
fabric of human existence on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

"Living with Machines represents a hugely exciting and innovative development in arts and humanities research. The collaboration between historians and data scientists, exploiting the remarkable growth of digital archives, will open up dramatic new perspectives on the well-known story of the industrial revolution and the history of society’s relationship with machines and technology since the eighteenth century."
Professor Roey Sweet, Director of Partnerships and Engagement at the Arts and Humanities Research Council

The mechanisation of work practices

The central theme – the mechanisation of work practices – speaks directly to present debates about how society can accommodate the revolutionary consequences of AI and robotics. To understand the fraught co-existence of human and machine, this project contends that we need research methods that combine technological innovation and human expertise.


Living with Machines aims to:

  • Generate new historical perspectives on the effects of the mechanisation of labour on the lives of ordinary people during the long nineteenth century.
  • Support the wider academic and cultural heritage sector in using digital methods to answer historical questions.
  • Create new tools and code that can be reused and built upon in future projects.
  • Develop new computational techniques for working with historical research questions.
  • Enrich the British Library’s data holdings for the benefit of all
  • Advance public awareness of how digital research in the humanities can enhance understanding of history.

About our Thematic Clusters

Using 19th-century Newspapers 

The project has digitised over half a million pages of historical newspapers and press directories (which provide information about readership, places and dates of publication). These, together with the newspapers already available digitally on the British Newspapers Archive have made it possible to study the newspaper landscape of the 19th century. These papers are also used for historical research and as source documents for crowdsourced activities. And the work has also offered the opportunity to develop new software tools to help the digitisation process, analyse the quality of the Optical Character Recognition, develop copyright-aware data access infrastructure and much more.

Copyright for the newspapers has been assessed during the life of the project to ensure that any out of copyright content can be re-used by researchers including members of the public and can be found on the British Newspaper Archive website.


What is a Machine

What do we talk about when we talk about machines? Are these simple tools, mechanical instruments used in factories, or means of transport? Or are they metaphors that refer to abstract entities like states and justice, or physical ones like bodies or theatre props? Mixing crowdsourced annotation activities and innovative computational linguistic analysis, we have tried to answer this question, writing academic papers testing new working methodologies and producing useful datasets.


Living Machines: the language of animacy

How did people in the 19th century imagine the relationship between humans and machines? In what ways have machines appeared to be alive? Using a number of large text corpora we created language models to help explore this question, which has long preoccupied historians. This research has produced papers in linguistics and soon in history; as well as freely available datasets and models.


Using 19th-century Maps

Industrialisation is visually evident on tens of thousands of Ordnance Survey maps printed during the 19th century. We have created new, computational tools (MapReader) to navigate and analyse digitised map collections from the National Library of Scotland and the British Library. Working with maps in this way allows us to turn visual content into machine-readable data. This means we can link information from maps to other sources, like place names in newspapers or streets in the census. 


Using 19th-century Census Microdata

Historical census information is a fantastic tool for researchers interested in how people were employed in the past. 

We have also used census data to investigate how new technologies and machines changed the type of work that people were doing. To do this, we developed algorithms to follow people through multiple censuses, to understand how their employment (and where they lived) changed over their lifetime.


Beyond the Tracks Research

Building on the methodological work to analyse Ordnance Survey maps and census data independently, we are now also bringing these massive Victorian datasets together. Using a further dataset we created that locates all passenger railway stations in Britain, we explore who lived close to or distant from railway infrastructure and stations. By combining these materials we are able to generate national coverage of all cities, towns, and villages across England and Wales. This research highlights how linking historical information by place sheds light on social change.


Making Spatial Humanities Data

The British Library hosts one of the largest collections of historical maps. Living with Machines has contributed to the digitisation and georeferencing of over 15,000 new maps with the collaboration of the National Library of Scotland. 


New collaborative methodologies

Bringing together experts and scholars from different fields, from historians to computational linguists, from copyright managers to software developers we have also experimented with new ways of working collaboratively using our expertise to shape new avenues for future research in the ever expanding world of digital humanities. This experience has been described in the forthcoming book Collaborative Historical Research in the Age of Big Data (CUP). 


Sharing knowledge about AI with the GLAM sector

We have shared some of the methodologies used within the project organising tutorials and workshops and have contributed on making AI more accessibile in the GLAM sector. One of the most important tutorials being the one released on The Programming Historian.

Let’s talk

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