Thursday, March 28, 2013

La guerre n'est pas finie

"L'Heure a découvert la machine a finir la guerre." 1917 © IWM, Item  PST 2702.
Above, dear readers, is a glorious snippet of the digital harvest from a search of WWI-era technology items in the IWM's collections database. The French periodical, L'Heure claims (most likely facetiously) here on the cover of a WWI-era issue, that a machine to finish the war has been discovered. Though it looks somewhat tank-ish, the machine pictured is eerily different. It is a mechanical beast from some unwritten future with tall and narrow wheels, a weird light-casting articulated tentacle, and, perhaps most oddly, a benign looking "face" with two glowing red eyes and an almost goofy bucktoothed expression. On top of its strange pallor and figure, the fact that the eyes stare so blankly and the machine hardly seems to perceive us as we stand directly in its path makes this imagined wonder more ghostly, somehow less menacing and, I would dare suggest, almost inspires a kind of futuristic nostalgia, a longing for what war-weary Europeans (and others) in 1917 might have hoped would soon exist but so clearly was not yet there--a machine that could end the war.

Truly, the L'Heure cover is a poignant example of the fever-dreams inspired by wartime technology. Or by technology in general.

Sometimes I think that technology of the present day brings or instantiates its own fever-dreams. Our  everyday uses of technology and/or media necessitate many kinds of lucid (sometimes feverish) dreaming, whether we participate in a social network, seek news or information, or maintain a hectic volley of text messages, emails, and other communications. The practical or concrete aspects of our relationship with technology go hand-in-hand with the necessity of accepting the virtual, the apparent.

Though the machine to end the war was merely a figment of a magazine writer's and illustrator's   imaginations, the IWM's Collections Database yields other evidence of the blending of tangible and apparent that real wartime technology entailed:

James McBey, "Wireless Operators, " 1917. © IWM, Item ART 1445.
In James McBey's sketch, wireless operators transcribe a message received from a distant communicator. The operator in the image's foreground has an intense look of concentration. He strives to note the message exactly as communicated, no doubt, this work perhaps dissolving temporarily his awareness of his present surroundings in a brightly lit bunker or trench (the looseness of McBey's drawing of the man's legs and feet suggest a weird sort of disembodiment) and connecting him most intensely to the speaker on the line. 

Female war workers making wireless equipment, 1914. © IWM, Item Q54617.
Here, female war workers assemble wireless equipment. They, too, convey a sense of intense concentration as they manipulate what must be delicate materials and equipment. Though they do not use the wireless to communicate, one wonders what inscrutable chain of thoughts or concerns runs through their minds as they bow their heads and focus on their work.

Whether actual device or imagined contraption, technology occupied a great deal of attention during WWI. The era was one in which the newest inventions seemed more mysterious, perhaps, than they do to us today. While we are flooded with an array of tools, software, and gadgets, the ghosts of 1914 were living in a different, perhaps more transitional time. The actual status and forms of technology inspired many visions of its eventual or hoped-for manifestations. 

More to come on WWI-era technology and the social history thereof. For now, though, I will close this broadcast of "Ghosts of 1914." Thanks for reading!

© Fiona Robinson

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