The poetry of progress

by jasoncrawford6 min read15th Nov 20216 comments

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Progress StudiesPoetryMusicWorld Modeling
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I’ve said that Western culture, before the World Wars, had a positive philosophy of progress. How do we know that people in that era saw glory, romance, even poetry in progress?

One way we know is that they literally wrote poetry about it. Take, for example, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles). By vocation a doctor, he also wrote poems. In 1791, he published The Botanic Garden, of which Part 1, titled “The Economy of Vegetation,” “celebrates scientific progress and technological innovation, such as the forging of steel, the invention of the steam engine and the improvements to gunpowder. It depicts scientists and inventors, such as Benjamin Franklin, responsible for this progress as the heroes of a new age.” (Wikipedia) In one remarkable passage, he praises the power of steam and predicts the steamboat, the locomotive, and the airship:

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer’d Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
—Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping croud,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

Or take this stanza from “The Engine-Driver to His Engine”, by engineer William J. M. Rankine, which reads less like a classical epic and more like a popular ballad:

My blessing on old George Stephenson! Let his fame for ever last,
For he was the man that found the plan to make you run so fast.
His arm was strong, his head was long, he knew not guile nor fear;
When I think of him it makes me proud that I am an engineer!

Samuel Morse, telegraph inventor, was also praised in poetry. A poem read at his memorial service in 1872 begins by describing mankind as having conquered all of nature except for “the Ocean, the Mountain, and Time and Space”—until Morse came along:

But one morning he made him a slender wire,
    As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire,
    That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.

It wasn’t only amateurs and enthusiasts who wrote poetry praising machines and inventions. No less than Rudyard Kipling wrote of the beauty and glory of the steam engine in “McAndrew’s Hymn.” McAndrew is a Scottish engineer aboard a steamship, and in one passage he compares the engine to an orchestra, after one of the “first-class passengers” asks him, “don’t you think steam spoils romance at sea?”:

Romance! Those first-class passengers they like it very well,
Printed an’ bound in little books; but why don’t poets tell?
I’m sick of all their quirks an’ turns—the loves an’ doves they dream—
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!
To match wi’ Scotia’s noblest speech yon orchestra sublime
Whaurto—uplifted like the Just—the tail-rods mark the time.
The Crank-throws give the double-bass; the feed-pump sobs an’ heaves:
An’ now the main eccentrics start their quarrel on the sheaves.
Her time, her own appointed time, the rocking link-head bides,
Till—hear that note?—the rod’s return whings glimmerin’ through the guides.
They’re all awa! True beat, full power, the clangin’ chorus goes
Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin’ dynamoes.
Interdependence absolute, foreseen, ordained, decreed,
To work, Ye’ll note, at any tilt an’ every rate o’ speed.
Fra skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an’ stayed,
An’ singin’ like the Mornin’ Stars for joy that they are made;
While, out o’ touch o’ vanity, the sweatin’ thrust-block says:
“Not unto us the praise, or man—not unto us the praise!”
Now, a’ together, hear them lift their lesson—theirs an’ mine:
“Law, Order, Duty an’ Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!”
Mill, forge an’ try-pit taught them that when roarin’ they arose,
An’ whiles I wonder if a soul was gied them wi’ the blows.
Oh for a man to weld it then, in one trip-hammer strain,
Till even first-class passengers could tell the meanin’ plain!

Or consider this by the popular verse-writer Berton Braley, in the voice of the team that built the Panama Canal:

Don’t send us back to a life that is flat again,
    We who have shattered a continent’s spine;
Office work—Lord, but we couldn’t do that again!
    Haven’t you something that’s more in our line?
Got any river they say isn’t crossable?
    Got any mountains that can’t be cut through?
We specialize in the wholly impossible,
    Doing things “nobody ever could do!”

Altogether, these paint a picture, to my mind, of a culture in which invention was seen as glamorous, machines as romantic, and engineers as popular heroes. Growing up with this sort of thing, I can easily imagine a youth deciding to follow this path and become an inventor or entrepreneur.

(I’ve started a collection of poems like these here, where I’ve included full poems or longer excerpts, and links to sources. I’ll update that page as I find more examples.)


However, it’s important to be careful with historical comparisons like this.

First, it’s easy to (even unintentionally) cherry-pick examples from the past. Not all 19th-century poetry was about industrial progress; plenty of it was about love, war, beauty, honor, valor, duty, etc.

It’s also easy to overlook similar examples in the present. Poetry, as an art form, just isn’t as popular as it once was—but there is a modern equivalent, which is the lyrics of popular songs. So I asked on Twitter for examples of popular music in the last few decades that glorifies science or engineering, and got a ton of replies.

Here are a few of the ones that, in my opinion, most fit the bill (regardless of aesthetic style, and not being too strict about artistic merit):

“Fire in the Sky,” from the album To Touch the Stars: A Musical Celebration of Space Exploration:

“The Ballad of Smallpox Gone,” by Leslie Fish:

“The Norman Borlaug Rap”:

“Vidare,” by Adolphson & Falk (see here for translated lyrics):

“Sogno di Volare,” from Civilization VI (lyrics):

A few others that were frequently mentioned include PBS’s The Race for Space, Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants, and the Symphony of Science. (I was looking for serious lyrics that explicitly discuss science and technology, so I’m omitting parody, nor does electronic music count just because technology is used to make it.)


It’s hard to know what to make of all this. I still feel, when I read about the late 19th century in particular, that there was a reverence for and glorification of technological progress that is unmatched today—for instance, in the celebrations they held. But I find this specific exercise inconclusive.

Thanks to Clara Collier for help with the music research.

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One possible thing: We have too much information available at our fingertips about the people who might be our heroes. Elon Musk (well, people he hired) landed a fucking rocket on a robot barge in the ocean. Mission Status: SICK. But...I am not going to write a sonnet about him, because of <gestures>. 

Another thing: Maybe the cool breakthroughs of today are more likely to require a team (of rocketeers, here) instead of one prominent person to whom I could address some doggerel. 

These are my first two thoughts as well (although I think the second is partly a subset of the first - many great inventors had teams of unnamed helpers, or were just the last and luckiest of a long line of forgotten inventors who didn't quite get there, or both).

My third thought is - maybe it's just really hard for most people to feel amazement, in a world so filled with wondrous things, when you don't yourself know how any of it works? Like, an LED is amazing compared to an incandescent lightbulb, but if you aren't armed with a good understanding of physics and/or chemistry, it's all just a light bulb. Landing a rocket on a barge is incredible, but if you're not familiar with the relevant engineering, does it seem that much more incredible than landing even part of the space shuttle on a runway? Joy in the merely real is hard without a Feynman-level understanding of "mere."

Sometimes I have to remind myself how amazing so many things are that I encounter everyday, let alone the things I see coming in the next handful of years. For me one of the few things that consistently induces wonder is the field of metamaterials. I've read enough papers to know at root how they work, but still, I now live in the world where physicists can make things they call "illusion devices" that can block or alter the transmission of light through open air! There are arrangements of pillars, or trees, or rocks, or tunnels that could make a building or ship (or city?) invisible to tsunamis and earthquakes! But to most people in my life, this just gets dismissed as magical thinking along with fusion and lots of other things they assume belong to fiction or the far future (a set which usually includes a large number of things that have already been known, done, or used industrially for decades).

Another song from To Touch The Stars, Starfire, has a verse celebrating group endeavors:

Ten thousand hands to build the shining shell
It took a dozen years, and love to build it well
All those who touched its birth, though they be bound on earth
Will be with the astronauts that in her dwell

(Not sure if it's intended as "birth" or "berth" or deliberately ambiguous.)

There's also the song "Somebody Will" by Sassafras. https://secularsolstice.github.io/Somebody_Will/gen/

I'm sure I know other examples, but those are what's coming to mind right now.

Poetry in general is not dead (yet), but the very specific form of poetry aimed at explaining scientific concepts (rather than simply celebrating progress) is very, very dead since at least 150 years. I am talking about didascalic poetry, which used to be a thing in past centuries but now is so neglected that I must link its Italian Wikipedia page, since the English version doesn't even exist (also, my grammar checker stubbornly keeps underlining "didascalic").

This makes me feel a bit sad. As you could guess, I'm a big fan of didascalic poetry, and would absolutely support someone actually trying to carve rhymes from math proofs (or blueprints, or the like) without sacrificing the scientific accuracy. Unfortunately, doing it at an acceptable level is quite hard. Two years ago I tried to write a basic graph theory course in octaves (for basically no reason other than "I really like graph theory and metric poetry"), but I got stuck with some awkward rhymes after three pages and left it rotting unfinished.

Didactic poetry might come back. One of the consequences of computer creativity is lowering fixed costs of every sort, which can have very large elasticities and enable an even greater long tail of outputs.

My usual example is Vocaloid: you might think singers are a dime a dozen, and finding or being a singer cannot possibly be a bottleneck of any sort to would-be musicians; yet, turns out, if you can provide even terrible-sounding singing voice synthesizers, you unleash tens of millions of songs and create countless careers. (Even the singers can do pretty well out of it as they can cover songs or work with new composers to redo 'professionally', as it were, their prototypes.) The attempt to power through bottlenecks also has costs - I've mused this about single-creator works like Kill Six Billion Demons or A Practical Guide to Evil: the creators aspire to working in many genres or formats, like both poetry and fantasy epic, or Western comic and religious parable, but no one is gifted at everything, and it's pretty clear which one the creator is best at and the attempt to be more of a Gesamtkunstwerk does not always help them. If they had bigger budgets, perhaps they could afford to hire a collaborator, but they don't and they won't. (Assuming they could even locate them. Who do you hire to write didactic poetry on graph theory? Seriously. Even if you're a billionaire with unlimited budget, how do you find "a great, talented poet willing to write on that topic", rather than simply take your money and do a poor job? Surely there is someone out there who can do it. But do you know who? I sure don't. But I do know GPT-3 does surprisingly good math-themed poetry already, and it'll do so 24/7 for as long as you want to pay the API bills, and that future models will only get better.)

But with the march of generative models in particular, both of those change. A composer may not be able to sing, but he can recognize what he wants and work with a Vocaloid well enough, and it's far easier than working with a real singer. A multi-genre creator may be only really good at worldbuilding and narrative, and be unable to write decent poetry to sprinkle in his fictional world, but he can recognize a good sample of poetry if he plays around with enough generated samples on the necessary theme. And this goes for whatever others he might need: generative models are by nature generalists, and adding in additional genres or styles is no big deal.

The creator of the future can look much more like an editor than a creator, organizing gangs of APIs churning out dozens of samples until one proves adequate. ("Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter ‘s’!” Now all in g! A sonnet, trochaic hexameter, about an old cyclotron who kept sixteen artificial mistresses, blue and radioactive, had four wings, three purple pavilions, two lacquered chests, each containing exactly one thousand medallions bearing the likeness of Czar Murdicog the Headless! Now all in the letter 'a'. About the mating habits of the radioactive white-faced chinchilla. Not easy to compose, I assure you, but very funny.") It only takes 1 person to then generate what they wanted to read.

We should totally bring this back.

This is a modern example I like: https://mathwithbaddrawings.com/2013/07/04/a-fight-with-euclid/