What was a machine? Explore real examples from the 1800s

Is a bicycle a machine? What about a pram? Or an umbrella? Language tells us how people categorise things in the world and organise their reality. How did people talk about machines when they were still so new? How did they use them in metaphors, the way we might say ‘computer says no’ now?

Researchers on the Living with Machines project asked members of the public to help collect and categorise machines mentioned in newspaper articles. Explore these machines from the 1800s here.

How we made this

We set up a crowdsourcing project on the Zooniverse platform for online ‘citizen history’ volunteers, explaining that:

‘From our 21st century perspective, we probably don’t think of scales as a ‘weighing machine’, or think of prams as machines at all – but the fact that they were called a ‘machine’ in 19th century texts could tell us something about what ‘machines’ were in the nineteenth century imagination.’

We then processed the resulting data with some Python ‘Notebooks’ – special webpages that can run software code on data.

Finally, we modelled visualisations with JavaScript Notebooks on a platform called ObservableHQ, and installed the finished visualisations on screens in the gallery.

We made many visualisations over time as we thought about how to present the data interactively, while working around the varying numbers of records from different places and decades.

Looking at these Notebooks can provide insights into how the JavaScript code interacts with our processed data.

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