For progress or against technology – Contemporary opinions of technical inventions

Opening of the Electrical Exhibition by Crown Prince Rudolf, 1883

Opinions were divided on the inventions and technical innovations of the nineteenth century. Some saw the railway, for example, as a ‘devil’s work of technics’, others as ‘the greatest monument to the skill of today’s engineers’.

Opening of the Electrical Exhibition by Crown Prince Rudolf, 1883

Stefan Zweig, a major Austrian author, describes the nineteenth century’s belief in progress as follows: this ‘belief in uninterrupted, unstoppable “progress” truly had the force of a religion for that era; one believed in this “progress” even more than in the Bible, and its gospel appeared to be irrefutably proved by the daily appearance of new wonders of science and technology.’ This belief in progress found its expression in literature, for example, in the books of Jules Verne, who provided pictures of future worlds of technology full of balloons and submarines.

One of these ‘wonders of technology’ was electricity, whose achievements were presented to the public in an exhibition in 1883. Crown Prince Rudolf opened this Electrical Exhibition with ‘feelings of pride’ at the ‘self-sacrificing patriotism of a number of men’ who were working to use electricity ‘to open up new paths for everyday life’. Railways were acclaimed in a similar manner,  and they inspired compositions by the two Johann Strausses, father and son, for example the ‘Railway Delights’ Waltz’ (1836) by the former and the ‘Excursion Train Polka’ (1864) by the latter.

Not everybody had such a positive attitude towards technical achievements and ‘progress’, first and foremost Franz Joseph, who used neither lifts nor the telephone and only had a English water closet installed in his private rooms at a very late stage. Even the railways were not always praised; specialists repeatedly stressed that they represented a danger to health. For example, in 1854 the General Manager of the railways in Saxony published the following warning, ‘When sitting in the carriage one should desist from stretching one’s legs out under the opposite seat or from preventing any of the limbs of one’s body from being able to move. Any sudden change of speed can lead to the body being thrown forwards or backwards in the carriage. In most cases no harm will be caused if this happens, but on the other hand fractures of the bones or bruises may result.’ And although electric light in general attracted considerable praise, one contemporary noted, ‘Everything is just light. Light from all sides!  Still more light! Light until one is driven mad!’

Christina Linsboth