THOSE OF us who hate to fly, who curse cars and computers, will sense an extraordinary innocence in the new exhibition at the National Museum of American History. The objects on display call to mind an age when men still loved machines.
"The Mechanical Artist: Some Drawing and Engraving Devices of the 19th Century," is a curious little show full of curious little things. Among the littlest is an epigram engraved on glass by one R. J. Farrants in 1855. It reads:
A point within an Epigram
Is often sought in vain.
An Epigram within a point
Is here distinctly plain.
Well, sort of. Farrants' bit of doggerel is too small to be read. Inscribed with the aid of a "micro-pantograph," it occupies a mere 1/22,500th of a square inch. Tiny as it is, there are tinier texts on view. The prize goes to William Webb who, with a similar apparatus, inscribed The Lord's Prayer on 1/100,000th of a square inch in 1874. "Engraved on this scale," the catalogue informs us, "the Bible would occupy one-sixth of a square inch."
This show is filled with artifacts comparably goofy. Most are radiantly ingenious -- and suffused with pride.
"We travel by hot waters," observed London's W. Peters, another master of the miniature represented here. (He, of course, meant steam.) "The sun draws for us," wrote Peters (by that he meant the photograph); "We talk by lightning," he bragged on (referring to the telegraph); "and write invisibly," he added. His point, too, is plain. How wonderful we are!
By glancing at your shoes, Sherlock Holmes could tell you you had journeyed through the Punjab. Jules Verne's Captain Nemo could sip his fine French brandy beneath storm-tossed waves. With cams and gears and levers cunningly assembled, H. G. Wells' young hero could go traveling through time. Farrants, Webb and Peters, and the other 19th-century tinkerers we meet in this exhibit were comparably confident. If new machines could outperform the clipper ship and horse, then surely such devices could be teased into producing exquisite works of art.
"The artists in this exhibition are machines," curator Elizabeth M. Harris observes in the catalogue. "They were built to carry out feats of draftsmanship that were beyond human hand or eye -- to make the straightest line, the most intricate design, the most exact copy. They embody the notion of a perfection unflawed by human idiosyncrasy: mechanical perfection."
The machines in her show include a French camera lucida (c. 1830), a pantograph as old (whose pivoting parallelogram was widely used for copying, in miniature or blow-up, linear designs), and a polygraph constructed by Charles Willson Peale, a pantograph of sorts used by clerks and statesmen (among them Thomas Jefferson) for writing more than one fair copy at a time. Devices as ingenious were also used for portraiture, especially for silhouettes. One of these, the physiognotrace, designed in Philadelphia by John Hawkins in 1803, proved to be so popular at Peale's small museum there that Peale's slave, Moses Williams (who cut silhouettes of visitors for 8 cents apiece) bought a house with his earnings.
The French artist St. Memin, who brought a similar machine here in 1793, charged a little more -- $25 for gentlemen, $35 for ladies. But then his sitters got not just a silhouette but a crayon drawing, an engraved copper plate and a dozen prints. St. Memin, whose prints all are small, miniaturized his images by following the principle Farrants, Webb and Peters later took to such excess.
Machines were used for landscapes, too. A ruling machine invented by the Englishman Wilson Lowry in 1790 enabled him to fill the backgrounds and the skies of his copper-plate engravings with subtle shades of gray. With the addition of eccentric chucks and discs, the simple ruling machine became the "rose-engine lathe," a device, writes Harris, "that produced patterns so elaborate and so regular that they were considered impossible to copy, even with another machine." Such machines are still employed for engraving the more intricate designs on paper money.
The tinkerers forged onward. Combining the principles of the ruling machine and the pantograph, they developed a device known as the "anaglyptograph" that, by following the contours of a bas-relief or medal (and later of entire statues carved wholly in the round) produced an image of the sculpture in lines in two dimensions. Because some distortion was unavoidable, the engravings thus produced were not entirely successful. One on display here, much retouched by hand, is a tracing of a medal that portrays Simon Peter. "No amount of handwork," Harris observes rightly, "could turn the Saint's duck-bill back into a nose."
The most ambitious instrument represented here is H. Maillardet's automation, a doll equipped with wheels, levers, springs and cams concealed beneath its skirt. Made in 1805, it had in its repertoire two poems and four drawings. A number are on view.
Alas, they're rather awful. Something stale and lifeless, perhaps not surprisingly, marks almost all the images included in this show. The machines themselves are lovely. Their brass gears gleam, their wheels spin, their shapes delight the eye and mind. They look far more like works of art than the pictures they ground out.
Technology, we sense once again, cannot do much for art. Technologies go stale. Novelty soon pales. The paint brush, after all, is not a new invention.
The tinkerers we meet in this show were optimistic, patient, imaginative and skillful. But that was not enough. For one thing, they woefully underestimated the power of the camera, which soon enough would make their machines obsolete. Progress let them down. Though astonishingly proficient at adjusting cams and levers, they did not make good pictures. Nor, for that matter, do the vast majority of artist-engineers who, fiddling today (particularly at MIT) with floppy discs and holographs and other such devices, convince themselves (and others) that they are extending the old boundaries of art.
"The Mechanical Artist" is on view in the museum's third floor Hall of Graphic Arts, where it will remain through October.