Machines to enhance and increase the power of the human body have been used since remotest antiquity. The simplest of machines, the lever, seems to have emerged independently in many different cultures, millennia ago. Simple systems of pulleys and cranks have been used all around the world for many centuries. Understanding the advantage of machines is anything but a modern discovery.
Along the centuries machines progressively became more sophisticated, in a process of technological development that has been unstoppable. In Europe, in the nineteenth century, the introduction of the steam engine in factories led to radical changes and to exponential increases in productivity. The development of machines was so dramatic in Europe and the growth of their use in industry had such radical consequences that historians have labelled this an “Industrial Revolution”.
Machines were an indispensable element in the economic development of Europe and the world but their impact has been much more profound than merely the economic one. Consider just the societal impact of a technological apparatus such as television in the modern world. Or, consider the impact of machines and industrial processes in our eating habits and the way we dress. Or — on a darker note – the crucial importance of machinery in warfare and in opening the possibility for mass destruction. Machines and industrial processes have shaped our lives in ways so deep that it is almost impossible to disentangle them from the very fabric of our societies and our collective conscience.
But the story of the construction of machines and the improvement of technologies related to industry has always been a remarkable story of inventiveness, discovery, and many times of sheer intellectual brilliance. It has also been a story of collective work, of common efforts to overcome obstacles that sometimes seemed unsurmountable.
In this exhibition are shown documents related to a variety of machines and industrial procedures that are part of the history of Europe, from the 15th to the 20th century. The documents presented refer to very different technological apparatus or processes. Here one finds documents about constructions for the management of water, and about machines for the sieving of tobacco; diagrams of coal mines and plants of a dyeing factory; patents for new industrial processes as well as patents for a new type of refrigerators. They all have in common that albeit in very different manner they have left some mark in the history of Europe. Preserving these documents is preserving the memory of an important part of the history of Europe.