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Machines have redefined time, enhanced people’s capabilities and challenged what it means to be human.

The following three stories show how machines that capture, regulate and replicate human behaviour have inspired creativity, and doubt, in artists and scientists.

Capturing Time: Vision versus Realism

Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey were pioneers of high-speed photography. With different artistic and medical interests, their work revealed a previously unseen world and changed contemporary understanding of animal and human motion.

A new world of sights and wonders, was indeed, opened by photography, which was not less astounding because it was truth itself.

Photographic News (1882)

In 1872 photographer Eadweard Muybridge was asked to help settle an argument for the businessman Leland Stanford over whether a trotting horse lifts all four feet off the ground. He developed a new process for high-speed photography using 12 cameras pointed at a track marked with vertical lines. The horses triggered his electromagnetically controlled shutters by breaking thin threads as they passed. Although simple silhouettes, his images proved that human vision could not see the reality of how a horse moved.

Occident trotting, Horse in Motion plate XI, Eadweard Muybridge, 1881
Occident trotting, Horse in Motion plate XI, Eadweard Muybridge, 1881

Muybridge enjoyed his reputation as a flamboyant artist and showman. He toured Europe lecturing, and drew particular acclaim for an appearance at the Royal Society in 1889. Entitling his work ‘The Science of Animal Locomotion in Relation to Design in Art’, Muybridge used a zoopraxiscope—his own invention—to show the animals in motion, anticipating modern cinema.

Despite this title, artists gave his discoveries a mixed reception, some arguing that the artist should reflect actual human visual experience, not the precise but lifeless world shown by scientific technology.

Muybridge at the Royal Society, London
‘Mr Muybridge showing his instantaneous photographs of Animal Motion at the Royal Society’, The Illustrated London News, 25th May 1889

The success of Muybridge’s horse images led to a commission from the University of Pennsylvania. They hoped his high-speed photography might help to analyse diseases and malfunctions of human movement. Guided by a committee of scientists, Muybridge nevertheless still approached the project as an artist.

His resulting publication Animal Locomotion included over 19,000 photographs in a very expensive 11-volume set, aimed at connoisseurs and libraries. He focused on the narrative and aesthetic qualities of the photographic sequences. Figures were inspired by classical statuary and clearly reflect contemporary gender and social stereotypes.

Collotype print of woman dancing by Eadweard Muybridge
‘Dancing (Fancy)’, Plate 187 from ‘Animal Locomotion’, Eadweard Muybridge, published 1887

In contrast to Muybridge’s artistic approach, the French doctor Étienne-Jules Marey saw the medical potential of high-speed photography. After reading of Muybridge’s work in 1878, Marey invented a ‘photographic gun’ to capture a range of humans, animals and birds in movement.

He later developed his own camera to photograph subjects at the Station Physiologique in Paris, a centre for physical and mental recuperation. His process fixed a series of images on a single plate, such as this jumping man, from which he could take exact measurements.

Man jumping hurdle
Photograph showing phases of movement of a man jumping a hurdle, made by Étienne-Jules Marey, around 1892.

Marey’s camera used a process he called chronophotography, or ‘time’ photography. It employed a rotating disc shutter, which allowed multiple images of an object in movement to be exposed on a single fixed plate. Marey dressed his subjects in black clothes marked with white lines along their limbs to allow him to focus on their changing movements.

The resulting images published in Le mouvement in 1894 (and in English a year later) were intended to aid other physiologists in their work. They also inspired contemporary artists seeking a new approach to modern vision, from Italian futurists to French cubists.

Marey’s method anticipated the motion-capture technology essential to modern films, which create animated characters based on human actors.

Camera for chronophotography
Camera for chronophotography (front and back) on a fixed plate invented by Étienne-Jules Marey, about 1882

Humans in the industrial machine: Smokestacks in Salford

L S Lowry’s paintings are symbolic of how machines came to control the industrialised workforce. His figures evoke the technological change, working hours and repetitive toil that regulated workers’ lives.

A Manufacturing Town was one of Lowry’s first works to receive public recognition and appeared in the ‘Civic Week’ supplement of the Manchester Guardian in 1926. The week was arranged to promote worker pride following the recent General Strike.

Lowry's 'A Manufacturing Town' on display at the Science Museum
'A Manufacturing Town', by L S Lowry, 1922 (on display in The Art of Innovation exhibition)
© Science Museum Group

Yet in style, content and title the painting captures the brooding essence of all Lowry’s industrial scenes. Under smoking chimneys, repetitive dark figures hurry between dour factories. Both they and their location are anonymous. Lowry’s work is seen as capturing the reduction of human workers to machines, mere units of production in vast industrial processes.

I look upon human beings as automatons… because they all think they can do what they want but they can’t. They are not free. No one is.

L S Lowry (1970)

Clocks are a regular presence in Lowry’s paintings, emphasising the relationship between work and time. At Park Green mill in Macclesfield this clock helped silk manufacturers to control their workers’ hours and maintain production. The bottom face showed real time, the top ‘mill time’. The hands of this upper clock were connected to the mill’s waterwheel, which also powered the mill’s machines. If the wheel stopped, so did ‘mill time’, forcing workers to make up any lost production. Humans thus became yoked to the pace of their machines.

Double-dialled longcase clock
Park Green Mill Double Dialled Longcase Clock, 1800-1820
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In the USA in the 1890s, a new approach to worker productivity emerged. Scientific management practices broke down industrial tasks into their component actions, to be timed and rearranged for maximum efficiency. Part of this was motion study photography, such as this British example that compares a woman using ‘old’ and ‘new’ methods of operating a hand press.

The latter removed one of the steps, increasing productivity by 40%. Critics objected that scientific management techniques curbed the skill and initiative of workers, turning them into machines without agency in their activities.

Motion study of handpress operation
11 motion study photographs showing ways to operate a hand press, National Institute of Industrial Psychology, 1920-1930

Industrial psychology became popular in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, aiming to study workers as humans rather than machines. In 1922 Rowntree’s Cocoa Works was the first British company to employ an industrial psychologist, named Victor Moorrees. He designed ‘formboards’ with cut-out coloured shapes to test prospective workers’ aptitude for packing chocolates into boxes.

Although these psychological approaches considered workers as individuals, they still ultimately sought to increase productivity.

Moorees formboard used at Rowntree's chocolate factory.
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Patterns of Thought: AI and Algorithm

Ada Lovelace saw the creative potential of a programmed machine 100 years before the first digital electronic computer. Today, artists are using algorithms to explore the possibilities and limitations of machine thought.

In 1843 celebrated polymath Charles Babbage began work on an ambitious new calculating machine called the Analytical Engine. Only trial pieces remain, but if completed it would have been the size of a large room and would have used steam power to conduct its calculations by moving a complex set of cogs, levers and punched cards.

Babbage wanted it to be capable of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, its design containing much of the architecture that we would recognise in a modern-day computer.

Trial model and spare wheels for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, around 1870

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Ada Lovelace first met Charles Babbage in the 1830s when she began to attend the famous soirees held at his house in Manchester Square, London, first with her mother Anne Milbanke and later with her mentor, the mathematician and science write Mary Somerville. Babbage and Lovelace became friends and collaborators through their mutual interest in mathematics.

Lovelace realised that the Analytical Engine was not just a device for carrying out calculations but could, in principle, be programmed, although she did not use that word, to manipulate quantities other than numbers such as symbols, letters and musical notes.

She saw the possibilities for machines to be able to be able to solve a variety of different problems, according to a set of human-led instructions, and even develop new creative forms.

The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

Ada Lovelace (1843)

This is the first published algorithm, written by Ada Lovelace in 1843. The algorithm arose when Lovelace translated a lecture, given by Charles Babbage in Turin, published in French by the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. In doing so she added seven comments in which she elaborated on the workings and the possibilities of the engine. Here in ‘Note G’ Lovelace looked at the sequence of numbers known as the Bernoulli numbers, setting out in detail how the machine could use a series of logical steps to calculate this sequence.

Diagram for the computation of by the Engine of the Numbers of Bernoull
Note G’ in ‘Sketch of the Analytical Engine’, Luigi Federico Menabrea and Ada Lovelace, 1843

Lovelace’s ideas continue to influence artists and scientists as they navigate an increasing algorithmic world. Longplayer is a piece of music composed by an algorithm created by Jem Finer. It began playing at midnight on 31 December 1999 and will continue to play for a millennium before it repeats. Longplayer works with six short pieces of music, playing a section of each one at any one time, producing a series of unique combinations.

Algorithms can be designed to create new works, such as art and poetry, without human input. But can a machine achieve the same creativity as the human mind?

The Art of Innovation

As these stories show, machines have had a profound impact on our understanding of the world and sense of self.

Whether it’s high-speed photography, the industrial city or society-shaping algorithms, the increasing mechanisation of society represents liberation and progress for some artists and scientists, but for others is a source of dehumanisation and destruction. 

Further reading

  • Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, The Art of Innovation: from Enlightenment to Dark Matter, London: Bantam Press, 2019
  • Shelley Rohde, L. S. Lowry: A Biography, Salford: Lowry Press, 1999
  • Hannah Fry, Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine, London: Transworld, 2018
  • Programming Patterns: The Story of the Jaquard Loom