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1. "Machine Age"

Will MACHINES liberate man or enslave him? Will they deliver a bounteous future previously unimaginable, or a soulless prison of man's making? Perennial questions, with perennial responses evident in the slideshow images at right—depicting THE MACHINE as man's sterling achievement and an unambiguous sign of his power, or as a faceless tyrant that saps man's innate strength and renders him infinitely less human than before. Dynamo or Frankenstein? Lord or Servant? We enter this discussion as it transpired in the Twenties, when fresh memories of mechanized warfare competed with enticements of new autos, appliances, and other mechanical adventures. In the intense debate, some championed machines, others condemned them; some pooh-poohed the doomsayers and others satirized the cheerleaders. Amidst them were those who just tried to figure it all out. What has man wrought with his machines?

    Collected commentary on the Machine Age PDF file
  • Collected commentary. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on the Machine Age. Here we sample the observations of industrialists, engineers, economists, clergymen, novelists, a dramatist, a humorist, and others who mused on the consequences for man of his precocious and unpredictable offspring, the machine. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. You can also add the observations on mechanization in "The Age We Live In" to expand your discussion. How similar is the '20s discussion of man and machines to our own in the 21st century? (16 pp.)

  • Charles Demuth, My Egypt, oil on fiberboard, 1927 Internal Link to Discussing Art page

    A leading American modernist painter, Charles Demuth created bold industrial landscapes in the "precisionist" style that employed precise commanding lines, stark geometric shapes, little detail, no texture, and rarely a human being. His 1927 My Egypt, which depicts a large grain elevator near his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, epitomizes the precisionist style. (View this photo of a grain elevator, constructed ca. 1890, in which wheat and other grains are stored for railroad transport.) Demuth's title likens the massive structure to the monumental tombs and pyramids of ancient Egypt; one can hypothesize why he called it "My" Egypt. Was he conveying his judgment of the Machine Age with this painting and its title? Compare My Egypt with (1) other Demuth industrial landscapes (see Supplemental Sites below); (2) with W. T. Murch's illustrations for Stuart Chase's Men and Machines (slideshow above); and (3) with Charles Sheeler's precisionist depictions of factories in Factory. What overall impression of the Machine Age is conveyed in these works? What impression of man within the Machine Age?

See also in this collection: "The Age We Live In."

Discussion Questions

Commentary ___
  1. To acquaint yourself with the commentary, complete the table below as you read. List the commentators who share the opinions on the Machine Age. Not all the commentators will be included.
    Opinion: Machines' Influence on Man and Society
    Commentators in Agreement
    Machines will enslave mankind. Man's life before the Machine Age was free.   
    Machines will liberate mankind. Man's life before the Machine Age was a form of slavery.   
    While mechanization causes social problems in its early phases, its benefits will outweigh its disadvantages in the long run.   
    How America forges its future in the Machine Age will be the model for the world.   
    In the Machine Age, man loses solitude and time to think. He will be less human and more robotic.   
    In the Machine Age, man gains vitality and a sense of the possible. He will be more human and less brutish.   
  2. Select one of the pairs of commentators below who held opposing views on the Machine Age. Summarize their difference of opinion as a poem, riddle, joke, political cartoon, four-frame comic strip, brief dialogue with short pithy sentences, etc.
    Henry Ford and Ernst Jonson
    John Candee Dean and Reinhold Niebuhr
    William Basset and Elmer Rice
    Edward Martin and Edna Ferber
  3. As you study Stuart Chase's list of items, "The New Standard of Living," which items surprise you? Why?
  4. Which items are products of mechanization and technological innovation? What do the non-mechanical items have in common?
  5. Which items would you add and remove for a 21st-century "Standard of Living" list? How would you change the "And" statements at the end of each of the four group lists (shelter, clothing, food, sundry)?
  6. According to journalist Walter Lippmann, what development made "mechanical progress" unique in modern times? Was he in favor of this development?
  7. How did columnist Robert Benchley use humor in "One Minute, Please!" to express an opinion about machines and business efficiency? How did Percival White use persuasive prose to make a similar point in "The Almighty Minute"?
  8. How did novelist Edna Ferber, through her character Selina in So Big, mourn that "the day is past when genius came from the farm"? What did she mean?
  9. How would technological innovation contribute to lowering the incidence of lynching in the South, according to African American journalist Walter White?
  10. Compare the responses to America's "mechanical civilization" of the two Englishmen Aldous Huxley and Walter Lionel George. Although they disagreed on several points, what attitude did they share as observers of the American scene?
  11. Of the technological innovations and feats discussed in the commentary, why did aviation inspire the most awe? Take one of the three items on aviation (essay by McIntosh, contest-winning entry by Oakley, and political cartoon by McCutcheon of the Chicago Tribune) and recreate it as commentary on another technological innovation of the 1920s, e.g., the Model A, commercial radio, talking pictures. Strive to convey a similar sense of awe, combined with a prediction of the innovation's impact on the future.
  12. Stuart Chase's analysis of the effects of mechanization on man and society is worth serious study (Men and Machines, 1929; pp. 14-16 in the collected commentary). Carefully read the three lists: "effects manifestly good," "effects manifestly evil," and "effects both good and evil."
  13. Complete the table below based on the collected commentary and other resources you may consult. In the second and third columns, briefly summarize the positions held by the commentators.
    Aspects of the Machine Age Positive Aspect? Why? Negative Aspect? Why?
    Most inventions are labor-saving machines. We gain time by having to spend less of it getting around. E. S. Martin Do we know what to do with the time we gain? P. White
    Efficiency is a major consequence of mechanization.      
    The pace of life has accelerated.      
    People have more leisure time, and new mechanized forms of leisure activity.      
    Goods are now produced by machines, not by individual men as in the past.      
    Workingmen earn their living in factories, not in small shops.      
    A factory worker performs just one task in the industrial process.      
  14. To the table above, add other aspects of the Machine Age discussed in the commentary. Be sure to consult Stuart Chase's list of "effects manifestly good," "effects manifestly evil," and "effects both good and evil" (in Men and Machines, 1929).
  15. How did the Machine Age debate in the 1920s differ from that of the early industrial revolution in Britain and the U.S.? How does it differ from the discussion of similar issues today?
  16. To this commentary on the Machine Age, add the general observations on the Twenties in "The Age We Live In." What characterizes how the people of the Twenties evaluated their times and themselves?
  17. Create a visual work that conveys your perspective on the Machine Age—an art poster, fundraising brochure cover, website homepage, political cartoon, bookmark, etc. Use one of the statements below from the commentary as the sole wording—the catch phrase—for your visual. Remember that your message may not equate with the statement you choose, that your perspective is conveyed through the entirety of your visual.
  18. As an extra challenge, assign to each of the slideshow images one of the statements above, or another statement from the collected commentary. What do you discover about visual imagery from this exercise?
Demuth, My Egypt, 1927___
  1. What was your first impression of My Egypt? What aspect first caught your attention—the building, the smokestack, the rays, the shapes, the colors, the title, the overall composition?
  2. How big did you imagine the painting? (It is one yard high and 5/6 yard wide.)
  3. Did you feel attracted to the painting? If so, how? Did you find it intriguing, mysterious, alive, forceful, immediate, enticing?
  4. Did you feel distanced from the image? If so, how? Did you find it static, ambiguous, frozen, manipulative, unrealistic?
  5. Would adjectives from both #21 and #22 describe your reaction? If so, what are the adjectives? What might they indicate about the painting and your response to the painting?
  6. Compare My Egypt with
  7. What overall impression of the Machine Age is conveyed in these works? What impression of man within the Machine Age?

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?


Collected commentary
Demuth, My Egypt, 1927
16 pp.
   View online.
16 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Political cartoons from the University of Iowa Libraries Stuart Chase, works online (full text) Elmer Rice, The Adding Machine, drama, 1923, full text (Google Books)

Precisionism (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Charles Demuth, overviews Charles Demuth, works online for comparison with My Egypt Janet M. Torpy, untitled commentary on Charles Demuth, Incense of a New Church, oil on canvas, 1921, cover image, Journal of the American Medical Association, February 9, 2011

– "A vision of modern progress," illustration, Popular Science, February 1928 (detail). Permission request in process.
– Walter T. Murch, illustrations (7) in Stuart Chase, Men and Machines, Macmillan, 1929. Permission request in process.
– Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927. Oil on fiberboard, 35 3/4 x 30 in. (90.8 x 76.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.172. Reproduced by permission.
– Charles Sheeler, Ford Plant, River Rouge, Stamping Press, gelatin silver print, 1927. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Lane Collection. Reproduced by permission.

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