n The Lives of Machines (2011), Tamara Ketabgian asked, “have not the Victorians long been famed for their organic sympathies, their stalwart humanism, their tragic vision of industrial alienation, and their corresponding antipathy toward the machine?” Wosk, like Ketabgian herself and others, including Joseph Bizup and Herbert Sussman (see bibliography), have challenged this polarized narrative in favor of repositioning Victorian culture’s engagement with the rich, figurative, and transformative possibilities that went along with the new technologies. In the new edition of her transatlantic study, Breaking Frame: Technology, Art, and Design in the Nineteenth Century (1992/2013), Wosk enlivens the debates surrounding new technologies by suggesting that the artists of the period bore significant responsibility for reconciling the bewildering extremes of speed and stability, of innovation and authenticity, new modes of production and classical order. In addition to Breaking Frame, Wosk’s contributions to the field include books dedicated to the intersections between technology and gender (Alluring Androids, Robot Women, and Electronic Eves [2008] and Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age [2001]). Breaking Frame, generously illustrated and featuring extensive archival research, shows how cultural and aesthetic tensions, while central to the concerns of many nineteenth century British and American artists, designers, and engineers, were present in the eighteenth century and earlier, and also how they extend in some respects to the present.

The conflict between the excitement over embracing the century’s ever-accelerating technologies and the deep anxieties over the consequences of doing so lies at the center of this book and is mirrored in its structure. The purpose of Breaking Frame is twofold: the first two chapters, titled “The Traumas of Transport in Nineteenth-Century Art” and “Art, Technology, and the Human Image” respectively, discuss the ways in which artists and illustrators registered the exhilarating and dangerous aspects of changing technologies and machinery. The third through sixth chapters, “Technology and the Design Debate,” “The Anxiety of Imitation: Electrometallurgy and the Imitative Arts”, “The Struggle for Legitimacy: Cast Iron,” and “Classicizing the Machine: Ornamented Steam Engine Frames and the Search for an Industrial Style” in turn cover the century’s intense design debates, often centered around questions of status and social mobility, over authentic handmade items vis-à-vis mass-produced imitation articles. The Afterword comments on the ways in which the nineteenth-century dialectic manifested itself in the twentieth century and how it continues into our own.

The paradoxical concept of “breaking frame” encapsulates the book’s driving concerns and serves to reconcile these competing viewpoints. Wosk borrows the phrase from American sociologist Erving Goffman who, in his Frame Analysis (1974), argues that

the experience of breaking frame occurs when the basic frameworks of understanding used to make sense out of events no longer apply. The subject, [here in Goffman’s words] “expecting to take up a position in a well-framed realm,” discovers that “no particular frame is immediately applicable, or the frame that he thought was applicable no longer seems to be.” In this unexpected situation, “the unmanageable might occur, an occurrence which cannot be effectively ignored and to which the frame cannot be applied, with resulting bewilderment and chagrin on the part of the participants.” [3]

To illustrate the idea, throughout her book Wosk provides plentiful and often graphic visual evidence taken from contemporary illustrations of the horror and violence lurking in circumstances grown “unmanageable.” For instance, during the opening ceremonies celebrating the opening of Britain’s Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830—which happens also to be the anecdote with which Herbert Sussman opens Victorian Technology —the Member of Parliament William Huskisson became disoriented, was struck by an oncoming train, and sustained injuries that led to his death shortly thereafter. Magnified by an individual tragedy, and many others apart from this, the event is emblematic. Wosk reflects, “railroad travel introduced a new world to which traditional modes of understanding and behaving, in Goffman’s terms, no longer applied. This experience of breaking frame with its attendant feelings of disorientation and dislocation became an important new theme in nineteenth-century art, illuminating the century’s undercurrents of uncertainty and fear” (4). Gone are the days of William Williams’s romantic Afternoon View of Coalbrookdale (note the piquant blending of the idyllic with the industrial in the name) in which genteel onlookers gallivant in the foreground of a landscape in which the peace, order, and dominance of the natural world are still assured over the presence of industry at its center. The broken frames of the nineteenth century, in contrast, were beginning to expose the fracturing of “psychic, social, bodily, and mechanical” order (4).

At the same time Wosk draws the reader’s attention to another way of understanding “breaking frame” as it is embodied in a textile mechanism of the same name, used to join raw strands (called “slivers”) of cotton together for spinning (6). The breaking frame as an object provides the analogue to

the aesthetic integration of the loose, diverse strands of contemporary experience. .... By visually clarifying the century’s diverse cultural responses to technology, nineteenth-century artists were in a sense creating their own version of a breaking frame—providing a means to integrate slivers of experience in a disruptive, disjunctive industrial era. The task was not welcomed by many artists, but a small, important body of works revealed artists’ abilities to weave the explosive effects of technology into a coherent framework. [7]

The transatlantic emphasis of the book appears in the divergent ways in which British and American artists, designers, and engineers reacted to these shared cultural tensions. With respect to railroad technology, criticisms in America came later and tended to be less harsh than their British and French counterparts. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that the American press simply lacked the rich public satiric tradition of the European press, particularly the French. To this end, Wosk devotes a section to the work of Honoré Daumier, whose brisk and expressive gestures range from caustic satires of the new locomotive technologies to the paintings of carriages featuring various classes in which the spaces of the trains have become hospitable, peaceful, amenable to reflection and quiet family time. Further, American artists often sought to minimize the problems associated with the new modes of travel in order to emphasize their commitment to economic and political expansion—though here, too, Wosk mentions tensions that did indeed exist, as memorably described in Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden (1964). Wosk does not, but might well have added, some further discussion surrounding influential arguments levied by historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously described westward expansion as an inevitable and organic process in which buffalo trails, or “arteries made by geology,” culminate in the “complex mazes of modern commercial lines,” i.e., the railroad infrastructure.

Issues surrounding design reflected further transatlantic difference. In chapter three, Wosk illuminates the vociferous objections to the new methods in design, advanced most forcefully by Ruskin and William Morris, and how these were countered by many American critics who were eager, as it is well known, to establish a uniquely American cultural identity distinct from Britain and Europe on all fronts, including design:

The fundamentally differing responses of American and British commentators were based not only on differing manufacturing methods but also on different historical experiences. America’s generally sanguine view of machine-made decorative arts was in part a reflection of the country’s success with standardized production methods. And in a country devoted to social progress and minimizing, theoretically, at least, the traditions of social class distinctions, American critics rejoiced in the possibility of democratizing the arts. [112]

All of the familiar problems involved with such a democratization, going forward to different degrees on both sides of the Atlantic, arose when suddenly the middle classes possessed the means, but not always the taste, to acquire elaborate manufactured items with which they began to furnish the interiors and exteriors of their homes. Wosk accordingly discusses the efforts toward better education in aesthetic taste both in England and America—a discussion which, one should point out, takes the arrival of the new “industrial arts” as a fait accompli and no longer debates their legitimacy, but only how such works may be made in good taste. By the 1870s, proponents of the industrial arts were publishing essays with titles such as “Ornamentation Considered as High Art” which argued for designers to rise to the status traditionally enjoyed by painters as established by Reynolds in the previous century. Welcome here would be a broader characterization of the nuances of the nineteenth-century hierarchy of the arts, in order to bring out more clearly the place the industrial arts was seeking within it. For proponents of many arts lower in the hierarchical order were similarly clamoring to elevate their cultural currency, including the art of illustration itself. Punch illustrator and bestseller novelist George Du Maurier, for one, in 1890-91 wrote articles and gave lectures in which he went so far as to imagine illustration to have lasting powers equal to, or in some cases greater than, works of the Old Masters. In a sense, the increasing visibility, variety, and number of such arguments represents a tremendous optimism toward the importance of art in the formation of a culture and the increasing everyday relevance it was beginning to have for ever-expanding audiences—and consumers.

Throughout Breaking Frame, Wosk consistently emphasizes the central role artists are to play both as critics of new technologies and as the ones best suited to help the public effect some sort of rapprochement with them. Does this imply that artists are somehow themselves breaking frames? Perhaps it does—and with all the risks Wosk is well aware that accompany this status. Such a mechanized view of artistic identity, however reconciling in its scope, is troubling in some ways. One might wonder where inspiration, drive, and vision to create exists in this model—I mean the kind of energy Henry Adams despaired of finding in the dynamo. The breaking frame cannot run itself: who shall run it? I do not wish to lean too heavily on the image, but such questions have yet to be resolved and the debate has, if anything, intensified. Wosk notes how contemporary artists have made use of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies in their work, and that their concerns bear remarkable parallels to those that preoccupied the artists and designers of the nineteenth century:

We continue our quest for electronic speed, we try to avert unexpected technological catastrophes, and work at creating designs that will help promote security and safety. We pursue new methods of imaging and duplicating ourselves, and create mechanisms, including industrial and domestic robots, to do our work. Our faith in technological progress—and the gnawing undercurrents of skepticism and concern—continue to shape our views of technology and the remarkable creations produced by today’s artists, designers, and engineers. [xxiv]

Yet a critical difference exists. With the postmodern delight in experiencing bewilderment and disorientation as ends in themselves, and the obsessive attachment to the simulacrum—the combination of which could only yield what philosopher Roger Scruton has aptly dubbed “meta-kitsch”—artists have, for the most part, now left audiences with only slivers.


Bizup, Joseph. Manufacturing Culture: Vindications of Early Victorian Industry. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2003. [Review]

Ketabgian, Tamara. The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. University of Michigan, 2011. [Review by Herbert Sussman]

Sussman, Herbert. Victorian Technology: Invention, Innovation, and the Rise of the Machine. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2009.

Last modified 16 January 2015