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Colloque de la Sfeve : Industrial Desires
The Man Machine Dyad

‘Savages’ and Spiritual Engines: Feeling the Machine in H. G. Wells’s Time Machine and ‘Lord of the Dynamos’

« Sauvages » et machines spirituelles: (res)sentir la machine dans Time Machine et ‘Lord of the Dynamos’ de H. G. Wells
Tamara Ketabgian


This essay explores the vestigial influence of natural theology, and its discourse of divine design, on H. G. Wells’s fictions of technology. In Natural Theology (1802), an influential text in this spiritual tradition, William Paley envisions a natural world of analogical clocks, which persuade and appeal to viewers through an immersive encounter with material artistry and skill. Although Paley’s star faded in the later nineteenth century, his discourse persists in alternate, technophilic forms—in what Wells calls the technological ‘patter’ of his own science fiction. Wells ironizes and aestheticizes these mechanical models of belief, both in his eponymous ‘time machine’ (1894–95) and in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (1894), which restages Paley’s analogy with a ‘savage’ worshipping the industrial engine. Seeking, above all, to feel the machine, these two works portray communities of intense spiritual affect, supported through sound, sight, and touch. Yet, while The Time Machine offers us fantastical devices that we must take on faith, ‘The Lord’ reads theistic humanism unsparingly against itself, through acoustic bonds that join people and things within an industrial power station. Exposing the freighted colonial subtext of natural theology, Wells anatomizes the modern worship of machinery, comparing the metropolitan British viewers of engines to naïve primitives in their own right.

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The author wishes to thank Daniel Brueckenhaus, Marie Laniel, Georges Letissier, Tes Slominski, and the members of the Société Française des Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes for helpful suggestions that aided the writing of this article. Research was supported by a Senior Keefer Faculty Grant from Beloit College.

1H. G. Wells begins his story ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (1894), with pointed directions. Set in the machine shed of a Camberwell power station, his tale seeks to ‘have the noise of the shed always about the reader as he reads[;] we would tell all our story to such an accompaniment’ (Wells 1894a, 4). As Wells’s narrator stresses, his readers and characters must all hear the same ‘steady stream of din’: ‘the intermittent snorting, panting, and seething of the steam engines’; ‘the suck and thud’ of pistons, ‘the dull beat’ of driving-wheels, the ‘note’ of leather straps, ‘and, over all, . . . the trombone note’ of the shed’s new, large dynamo (5). This essay explores the intense mechanical affect of Wells’s industrial landscape, through engines and acoustic patterns that are both felt and heard. Wells’s readers must always have this noise ‘about’ them, as ambient forces striking, surrounding, and transforming their bodies. Treating its listeners as receptive industrial subjects, ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ creates a shared community of mechanical sound, rhythm, habit, and, ultimately, belief. In this tale and The Time Machine (1894–95), Wells looks not only forward—to posthuman industrial assemblages—but also back—to earlier modes of spiritual and scientific faith, rooted in the felt experience of technology and ‘primitive’ natural religion. These works both invite and ironize our attempts to believe through seeing, hearing, and feeling the machine.

2While it does not discuss Wells specifically, my book The Lives of Machines (2011) addresses related scenes of mechanical feeling, whether in hydraulic models of the psyche, vital instinctive drives, or hybrid human and nonhuman collectives (2). Yet, as I now revisit these claims, I find that they neglect a crucial mode of industrial affect: the spiritual—the mystical and sublime aspects of Victorian machine culture and its communities of technical faith. And, aligned with this spiritual field, is another site of early modern fantasy and invention that Victorianists perhaps too readily dismiss: clocks.

3Why clocks? Following critics Anson Rabinbach and Michel Serres, The Lives of Machines focuses on the difference between clocks and power engines. It contrasts the ‘static Hobbesian watches of the Enlightenment’ with the dynamic motors of the long nineteenth century, whose ‘regulation of fire, coal, and steam’ aligned them both with living ‘animal bodies’ and with the powerful ‘natural, mechanical, and psychic’ forces that drive them (2). Beyond these differences, however, lie other promising continuities—continuities not of structure but of affective experience, grounded in the practice of reading the machine.

  • 1 On the uneven overlap between natural theology and ‘the discourse of design’, see Topham 38; Brooke (...)
  • 2 This article’s approach toward William Paley develops claims that I make in an earlier essay; see K (...)

4These two matters—clocks and faith—come to a head in natural theology and its ‘argument from design’ (Eddy 100).1 As a form of religious knowledge supported by the direct study of the natural world, natural theology relies heavily on watches as rhetorical figures of faith. These devices appear most notably in the theologian William Paley’s early-nineteenth century treatise Natural Theology (1802). Here Paley compares natural objects to timepieces that persuade and, indeed, speak to us through an immersive encounter with material artistry, complexity, and intrinsically technical design. ‘[S]uppose I had found a watch upon the ground’, Paley writes. ‘This mechanism being observed…, the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker’ (7–8, Paley’s emphasis). In this world of analogical clocks and watches, ‘[t]he machine, which we are inspecting, demonstrates, by its construction, contrivance and design. Contrivance must have had a contriver; design, a designer’ (Paley 13). Paley dwells exhaustively upon such intricacies of design—upon his watches’ various springs, chains, wheels, teeth, fuses, balances, pointers, and faces. Yet, instead of posing an empirical proof, these details produce an aesthetic and emotional effect, seeking to persuade through sheer technical accretion. As I have argued elsewhere, this ‘felt experience of “contrivance”’ is, for Paley, our closest approach to the divine (Ketabgian 2017, 261).2 In his treatise, ‘this language of mechanical immersion is inseparable from natural theology and its allied narratives of divine intention and intelligence’ (Ketabgian 2017, 261).

5At first glance it may seem wrongheaded to ally Paley with Wells. In an 1891 article for the Fortnightly Review, Wells embraces the death of natural theology and its orderly clockwork universe. He celebrates the advent of a new world of ‘unique’ and chaotic life and, with it,

man’s final emancipation from rigid reasonableness, from the last trace of the trim clockwork thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. . . . The neat little picture of a universe of souls made up of passions and principles in bodies made of atoms, all put together so neatly and wound up at the creation, fades in the series of dissolving views that we call the march of human thought. (Wells 1891, 29–30)

6For most widely educated people today, Wells’s remarks are a given: nothing would seem simpler than to link the demise of natural theology with the rise of nineteenth-century Darwinian theory and Helmholtzian thermodynamics. Yet, as Bernard Lightman, Anne DeWitt, and other revisionist historians of science have shown, this conventional wisdom overlooks the post-Darwinian emergence of a new natural theology: one that responded flexibly to scientific discovery and that included a majority of late-Victorian agnostics—even T. H. Huxley himself, now renowned as Darwin’s populariser and Wells’s biology teacher. More crucially, this view of natural theology neglects its growing emphasis beyond the natural world, to inform the Victorian technological imagination—what historian David Noble has termed ‘the religion of technology’ (9).

  • 3 This essay thus focuses on the narrative and discursive aspects of Paley’s moral philosophy, as wel (...)

7Paley’s watchmaker is certainly an easy target for Wells, whose fiction consistently presents a contingent and amoral natural world—a world seemingly bereft of greater design and intention. I argue, however, that Wells invokes Paley’s language of natural design in vestigial form, as part of a purposive world of man-made artefacts and aptitudes. Wells assumes a peculiarly combative relation toward this spiritual and technological tradition, as a way of seeing, feeling, and believing deeply rooted in the machine. For, if we view natural theology not simply as a static account of divine order, but as a rhetorical practice yoking technology and spiritual hermeneutics,3 his early scientific romances are remarkably resonant with this practice.

  • 4 Unless otherwise noted, this essay refers to the Heinemann volume form of The Time Machine, publish (...)
  • 5 I employ this term in a manner consistent with its historical usage by Wells and Samuel Butler, but (...)

8To be sure, Wells invokes metaphors of design precisely in order to fragment and undermine their fixed vision of divine order. He aestheticizes and ironizes mechanical models of belief and scientific objectivity—as I show both in his eponymous ‘time machine’ (1894–95) and in the acoustical bonds that join humans and nonhumans in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’. First serialized in The National Observer from March to June of 1894, and then in The New Review in 1895,4 The Time Machine offers us fantastical, mechanical models, which we must take on faith as persuasive spiritual and phenomenal experience. Yet it is in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ that Wells reads theistic humanism most unsparingly against itself, by restaging Paley’s divine analogy with a ‘savage’5 worshipping the industrial engine.

Spiritual Engines

9Wells may dwell on savage idolatry and ambitious leaps of faith, but we must turn to Paley to reflect more closely upon the technical shape and form of these feelings. In Paley’s treatise, belief is fuelled by machines whose structure explicitly addresses the limits of human sense and intelligence. These devices follow the religious doctrine of ‘accommodation’, which argues that God must adjust the ‘infinite mysteries of his being’ to the restricted capacities of humans (Dowey 3). Paley treats these ‘contrivances’ as rhetorical measures for human benefit (Ketabgian 2017, 261), devised to compensate for ‘our rational faculties [as] . . . formed at present’ (Paley 27).

10Addressing the relation between faith and technical ignorance, Paley compares the perception of divinity not only to a watch, but also to a factory tour. Pursued by unknowing visitors who seek to read the machine, this tour blends references to technology and living anatomy. Indeed, Paley suggests, the viewer’s ignorance of complex biology (‘the proper internal constitution of a gland’) is

a situation… precisely like that of an unmechanical looker-on, who stands by a stocking-loom, a corn-mill, a carding-machine, or a threshing-machine, at work, the fabric and mechanism of which, as well as all that passes within, is hidden from his sight by the outside case; or, if seen, would be too complicated for his uninformed, uninstructed understanding to comprehend. (52)

11Despite attempts to look and learn, this process of mechanical transformation remains mysterious to the uninformed spectator. Even so, Paley concludes, ‘What [the viewer] sees, is sufficient’ (52). Along with his limited vision, ‘the effect upon the material, the change produced in it’ and its future ‘utility’ still ‘abundantly testify … [to] the hand and agency of a contriver’ (52–53). While Paley never explains precisely how these machines work, he engages seriously with their formal, tactile, and sensory aspects, invoking both Arkwright’s early cotton-spinning factory (314) and a number of other cider, corn, and wire-drawing mills. It is through this uninformed and purely material act of ‘machine reading’ that Paley’s viewer grasps the spiritual associations of design, both as it invites and transcends human analysis.

12In Natural Theology’s scenes of machine reading, Paley uses analogy, a common form of religious argument long faulted for reductively allying—and equating—its objects with a divine referent. As a powerful rhetorical tactic for modelling spiritual phenomena, analogy bridges the gap between everyday language and special, but related, cases where such words and objects might involve God. Following Thomas Aquinas, theologians have defined this figure as a technique of perception, which explores new forms of spiritual insight through specialized linguistic immersion and comparison (Palmer 15–16). For Paley, analogy provides ‘the scale by which we ascend to all the knowledge of our Creator’ (27). Defined by modern philosophers as a process of cognitive ‘correction and qualification’ (Palmer 16), these linguistic ‘contrivances’ reveal a path to divinity that often lies within technological objects, discourses, and systems.

13How different, we might ask, is Paley’s use of mechanical analogy and accommodation from what Wells describes over a century later as the technological ‘patter’ of his own science fiction (Wells 1934, viii)? If, for Paley, technology both addresses human intellectual limits and inspires a corresponding spiritual vision, contrivance performs a similar function in The Time Machine. Following Paley in its title’s allusion to a clock, this text bases its conceptual leap of faith explicitly upon a machine: it uses a technical ‘fetish’ object (Wells 1934, viii) to cultivate belief in its fantastic premise of time travel. Wells says as much in a later account of his scientific romances:

[T]he writer of fantastic stories . . . must help [his reader] in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to get some plausible assumption and get on with the story while illusion holds. And that is where there was a slight novelty in my stories when they first appeared. Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic. . . . But by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted. That was no great discovery. I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.
As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writers is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. . . . So soon as the hypothesis is launched the whole interest becomes the interest of looking at human feelings and human ways, from the new angle that has been acquired. (Wells 1934, viii, his emphasis)

  • 6 See also Suvin 216-20 and Firchow.

14Interpreters have, ever since, used Wells’s material invocation of science—his use of an actual machine—to distinguish his modern brand of scientific romance from earlier fantastical works. For critics such as Robert Philmus and Darko Suvin, this use of technological explanation is ‘paradigmatic’ (Philmus 4) of science fiction as a genre premised on the consistent imaginative experience of scientific logic.6 While The Time Machine is path-breaking in other ways, its portraits of technology still invoke a traditional and deeply theological hermeneutic, based on mechanical form and analogy. As Wells himself concedes, his novel substitutes mechanical explanation—‘scientific patter’—for other rhetorical structures of magic or belief. Although Wells may sound dismissive of this belief, he nonetheless concedes that his machine—as myth, as fetish object, and as analogy—offers a new and valuable ‘angle’ of interpretation, of perspective sustained through a different, specialized, and more technical language.

15Wells begins his novel with precisely such a speculative and analogical display of machinery. In the text’s frame narrative, the Time Traveller seeks to demonstrate the valid scientific function of his larger machine through the presentation of a smaller model. As treated by the Traveller, this schematic model exists solely for discursive purposes—to persuade his coterie of sceptical friends. This task, however, is a difficult one, as the Traveller’s observers are ‘all on the alert’ (9) for deception, whether for a ‘sleight-of-hand trick’ (9) or other staged forms of paranormal phenomena, ‘like that ghost you showed us last Christmas’ (12). As the tale’s anonymous frame narrator and dinner guest recalls, ‘the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all around him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness’ (12). This disbelief recalls Wells’s own scientific spoofs as a student, including his exhibition of a sham perpetual motion machine, powered by a concealed electromagnet (Parrinder 39).

16To calm this climate of scepticism, Wells’s Traveller insists that his friends carefully examine the model. They oblige by ‘peer[ing] into the thing’ (10), although, like the ignorant human observers in Paley’s Natural Theology, their grasp of the mechanism and its principles is undoubtedly limited. For, while this small machine seeks to appeal to empirical observation and sensory perception, it is also deliberately introduced after the Traveller’s account of Time as an unknowable perceptual realm, a fourth dimension ‘that our consciousness moves along’ (6)—and that occurs as ‘presentation below the threshold’ (11). As one observer notes after the small model’s ghostly disappearance in time, ‘We cannot see it, nor can we appreciate this machine, any more than we can the spoke of a wheel spinning, or a bullet flying through the air’ (11). Like Paley’s watches and mills, the model accommodates for inaccessible phenomena, ironizing our attempts at inductive reasoning through its analogic mechanical form.

17While the Traveller presents his small machine as a discursive and schematic figure, it impresses its viewers aesthetically more so than technically. The narrator describes it as ‘a glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock, and very delicately made. There was ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance’ (9). Indeed, no sooner does the machine appear as a ‘beautiful’ ‘metallic framework’ (9-10) than it moves into an incomprehensible realm of perception, signified only by its technical art—its detailed yet enigmatic sense of design. As Suvin claims more broadly about Wells’s novel, scientific cognition here ‘mutates’ into aesthetic appreciation (101). This pleasing vagueness of construction is compounded by the model’s presence as an evanescent ‘ghost’—‘an eddy of faintly glistening brass and ivory’ (10), soon to challenge our vision and faith by vanishing altogether.

18The novel’s actual time machine serves a similar aesthetic, cognitive, and spiritual function. Its various levers and mysterious quartz-like material both resist penetration and support abstract forms of perception, allowing the Traveller himself to lose materiality, ‘slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances’ (18). Like the ‘twinkling’ light in which the small model is observed, the larger machine is also perceived in flickering shadows (11), and as alternately ‘substantial’ and delicate—‘sway[ing] like a bough shaken by the wind’ (70). Wells consistently invites us to examine this greater machine in a detailed yet unknowing way. And, like Paley’s ‘unmechanical looker-on,’ we respond to it as an object of design simply ‘too complicated… to comprehend’ (Paley 52). Wells’s narrator describes this mechanism repeatedly, but his images are disparate and unsynthesized—naïve serial lists without any particular pattern or order, since, after all, who knows what a functioning time machine should actually look like? Like Paley’s catalogues of design, these accounts feature complexity and detail for their own sake: ‘Parts were of nickel, parts of ivory, parts had certainly been filed or sawn out of rock crystal. The thing was generally complete, but the twisted crystalline bars lay unfinished’ (11). In Wells’s earlier manuscript sketches, viewers also describe the machine as ‘put together in such a delightfully credible way’ (Wells 2009, 119): they stress, above all, its mere presence and plausibility as a mechanism.

19For readers, for the Traveller’s listeners, and even for the Traveller himself, the time machine remains an impenetrable figure of art and faith—one whose design signals, at least in theory, the presence of order, certainty, and intelligence. Yet, in Wells’s fable, the machine’s assurances are somehow never enough. As readers, we return—again and again—to view this device during the novel’s own moments of doubt, disorder, and improbability: these recursions are essential to supporting the text’s greater narrative credibility. The Time Traveller himself acknowledges these uncertainties, and the leap of faith that they entail. After recounting his tale, he too is plagued by doubt, and must revisit his machine as an emblem of certainty, or at least its material approximation: ‘I cannot expect you to believe it,’ the Traveller tells his listeners ‘Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop . . . I hardly believe it myself’ (68). He insists, ‘I must look at that machine. If there is one’ (69, Wells’s emphasis). And, after the Traveller goes down the corridor, followed by his listeners, we experience another defining technical and phenomenal encounter: ‘There . . . was the machine sure enough, squat, ugly, askew, a thing of brass, ebony, ivory, and translucent glimmering quartz. Solid to the touch—for I put out my hand and felt the rail of it—and with brown spots and smears upon the ivory and bits of grass and moss upon the lower parts, and one rail bent awry’ (69). Here Wells’s engine is, in many crucial ways, not Paley’s: it is squat, ugly, damaged, and threatening. Worn by travel, it assumes a near-autonomous sort of life—a stubborn tactile presence that we also encounter on the Traveller’s first journey, where he ‘grapple[s] fiercely,’ with the machine, until it ‘turn[s] over’ and strikes him ‘violently’ on the chin (20). In both prophetic scenes, the machine is no longer simply the Traveller’s passive design; it is also a material object that pushes back with its own unsettling force and resistance.

20Both exciting faith and resisting rational comprehension, Wells’s time machine invites alternate, phenomenal forms of perception. It is not enough to see the engine, or hear its ‘technological patter’; we must also feel it, in the deeply tactile sense of the term. Wells’s frame narrator, for one, always wants to touch the machine, and to believe through feeling. In the scene just discussed, where the Traveller looks to his machine for reassurance, his anonymous dinner guest does too: he affirms the device’s presence and ‘solid[ity]’ by ‘put[ting] out his hand and fe[eling] the rail of it’ (69). Here, touch seems to inspire conviction through repeated material practice. However, when the frame narrator returns to the Traveller’s laboratory the following day, the novel also undermines such easy certainties. This time, when the narrator touches the machine’s lever, he is startled by its ‘instability’ (70) and, soon thereafter, by its collapse into an indistinct blur of sight and sound, as the Traveller departs one last time. Challenging the authority of the senses, the machine tests our confidence in feeling as a material basis for belief.

  • 7 A rocking stone is an unsteady Neolithic boulder, balanced to move upon slight pressure and possibl (...)

21In its later 1895 Heinemann volume, The Time Machine treats touch as an equivocal, but also powerfully intuitive, form of spiritual knowledge. However, in an alternate ending to the tale, found in one of Wells’s earlier unpublished manuscripts, we encounter an even more threatening—if not parodic—sketch of tactile feeling and mechanical faith. In this variant manuscript, Wells’s frame narrator still visits the Traveller’s workshop and still touches his time machine, in his continuing effort to grasp this object physically and intellectually. This time, however, the narrator is accompanied by his friend Bayliss, who, struck by the machine’s instability, compares it to an object of primitive pagan worship. In Bayliss’s own words, it is like ‘some ancient rocking stone.7 It feels unsafe—unsafe’ (Wells 2009, 119). Unable to resist contact, Bayliss mounts the machine in an impulse of irreverent horseplay. Losing his footing, he falls upon the engine’s lever, ‘grip[s]’ it ‘instinctively’ and then vanishes into futurity, his ‘horror-struck face’ never to be seen again (Wells 2009, 119). As these developments show, Wells initially envisioned the time machine not only as unstable and impenetrable, but also as potentially fatal to viewers who approach it without the proper reverence and belief. Like the spiritual aims of his technical patter, this alternate ending reveals the machine’s deeply rooted aspects of primitive religious ritual, faith, and superstition. Certainly, for our narrator, Bayliss’s disappearance serves as evidence supporting the tale’s ‘impossible hypothesis’: ‘[t]he time machine,’ he concludes, ‘had . . . proved itself no jest’ (Wells 2009, 119).

22Wells’s frame narrator follows this disappearance with a final Paleyan reflection on feeling the machine. Dwelling on both Bayliss’s loss and the demands of his own tale, he muses:

It may be good to wake up again from such a dream. To feel things under my fleshly hands again, to touch the familiar watches & see the watch & hear it tick. To look round & behold the human world again holding me in safety upon every side. Some day it may be that waking will not come. (Wells 2009, 120, his emphasis)

23Here the narrator does not go as far as to claim that design must have a designer, although he comes close. His imagery evokes the reassuring power of natural theology and its mechanisms—as persistently tactile, material, and speaking objects. Yet, the speaker’s watch can no longer confidently present a ‘neat little picture of a universe of souls . . . wound up at the creation’ (Wells 1891, 29). Instead, as an alternate time machine, it jars with the unsparing scepticism of Wells’s greater narrative. Belated and melancholy, this watch serves as an object of ritual, totemic comfort within an indifferent world.

24In both Wells’s alternate ending and his later volume, his machines are cagey and unstable; they support and also undermine processes of scientific method and persuasion. Yet, for all their disorder, these devices still display the uneasy vestigial traces of natural theology—and of a culture fascinated by technical models of intention, causality, and faith. For Wells, as for Paley, reading the machine thus yields powerful narrative, aesthetic, and spiritual consolations—consolations, I might add, that are tinged with irony and risk. These small gains persist even in a world absent of natural design. For, like the time machine itself, this world is still ‘beautifully made’ (10), but only in the realm of art and analogy, and not of nature.

Industrial Savages

25So far, this essay has discussed spiritual engines—watches, mills, time machines—but not savages. Yet Wells explicitly describes his device, and its technical patter, as spurring a sort of primitive fetish worship. His machinery is, he concedes, an updated ‘magic trick’, and we often encounter his engines in dreamy, séance-like scenes, apparently designed to dupe the ignorant. If the time machine is thus a savage totem—a ‘rocking stone’—then this atavism has keen consequences for Wells and Paley alike. What would it mean to compare Paley’s unknowing mill-viewer to Wells’s fetish worshipper and, by extension, natural theology to naïve idolatry? In its scenes of primal worship, ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ explores this question amid a tableau of modern progress and industrial sound.

  • 8 See Edwards on precursors to Butler who portray similar constructions, most notably the figure of a (...)

26It is not Wells, however, but Samuel Butler who first rewrites the analogy of Paley’s watchmaker as a primitive, colonial exchange in his 1872 dystopian satire Erewhon.8 In the lost world of Erewhon, where advanced technology is forbidden, the discovery of the narrator Higgs’s watch spurs a pointed misreading of Paley’s analogy. Higgs recalls how ‘when [the Erewhonians] first found it, I had thought of Paley, and how he tells us that a savage on seeing a watch, would at once conclude that it was designed’ (82). According to Higgs, the Erewhonians’ ignorance of ‘European civilization’ (82) increases their sense of this device’s threatening power—‘not as having been designed but rather as the designer of [themselves] and of the universe; or at any rate as one of the first great causes of all things’ (82). Transformed into a crude confrontation with modern invention, here Paley’s natural theology no longer supports religious knowledge based on the objective study of facts and nature. Instead, it evolves into the primitive worship and fear of a complex technological object, even among viewers that Higgs insists are ‘not savages’ (82). Converting natural theology into a naïve form of natural religion, Erewhon anticipates how, in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos,’ this technical aura speaks through the voices of things.

27Recent scholarship has been silent about Wells’s ‘Lord of the Dynamos’—and perhaps with good reason. It is an astonishingly racist tale. Like Erewhon, ‘The Lord’ restages Paley’s divine analogy, but as an exchange between Azuma-zi, a ‘savage’ (6) Southeast Asian stoker, and a large dynamo whose ‘unceasing, surging note’ (4) invites worship and, ultimately, ritual murder. Throughout, the narrative stresses Azuma-zi’s grotesque crudity and primitivism. His very physical form is the antithesis of modern British rationality, suggesting a ‘brain … twisted round in the reverse way to a European’s’ (3). Yet the text does more than simply trade in dehumanizing stereotype. Published only two months after The Time Machine completed its first serialization in 1894, this tale exposes the freighted colonial subtext of natural theology for Wells. For if Wells’s time machine ironizes Paley’s mechanical figures of faith, ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ also compares his machine’s metropolitan British viewers to credulous modern savages.

28Even the designers of these machines risk falling into Azuma-zi’s primitive role. In The Time Machine, the Traveller speculates upon his own likely atavism as he travels into the future. He too may come to resemble ‘an old-world savage animal’ (20) and, as he later reflects, ‘a negro, fresh from Central Africa’ (34), seeing the technical advances of London for the first time. Like this travelling African, the Traveller views the world of 802,701 CE—and its ‘automatic organization’—in regrettably ‘general’ (34) terms: ‘What would [the African] know of railway companies, of social movements, of telephone and telegraph wires, of the Parcels Delivery Company, and postal orders?’ (34). Here the Traveller invokes a popular late-Victorian discourse of a ‘world divided between the progressive and the backward’ (Adas 153), in which ‘technological development’ measures the ‘evolutionary distance . . . that separate[s] Europeans from . . . “primitive” or “savage races”’ (Adas 310). According to historian Michael Adas, this ‘technological gap’ appears most ‘graphically’ in nineteenth-century colonial accounts that ‘report . . . the awestruck responses of Africans to even the simplest mechanical devices’ (159) such as batteries and watches. For Wells’s Traveller, these images of primitive wonder certainly fuel comparison. He urges his listeners to ‘think how narrow the gap between a negro and a white man of our times, and how wide the interval between myself and these [future people] of the Golden Age!’ (34). The Traveller thus denigrates the ‘negro’ in order to imagine his own similar future, as a naïf overcome by a more technically advanced world.

29Through this affinity with the primitive, Wells explores a gap not only of cultural and technical knowledge, but also of time. Anthropologist Johannes Fabian has shown how such concepts of progress and primitivism support an act of ‘temporal distancing’, in which ‘savagery’ serves as ‘a marker of the past’, placing non-Western others in a different time than their ethnographic observers (75). The Time Machine both evokes and ironizes this ‘temporal slope’ (Fabian 17), undermining established chronologies of Western progress with its degenerate future world of effete Eloi and brutal Morlocks. However, this ‘slope’ appears most starkly in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, which treats ‘[c]ertain odd possibilities of the Negro mind brought into abrupt contact with the crown of our civilization’ (3). This archetypal encounter between colonial metropolis and periphery—between industrial modernity and primitive superstition—forms the acoustic and mechanical core of Wells’s story.

  • 9 Present-day Malaysia and Singapore.
  • 10 ‘God,’ in Holroyd’s Yorkshire accent.

30In its Camberwell power station, ‘The Lord’ meditates upon religion (Bergonzi 70) through both the savage and civilized worship of machinery. Following his arrival in London on a steamer ‘from the Straits,9 and beyond’ (4), Azuma-zi is employed at the station under James Holroyd, an abusive, racist Yorkshire engineer. Holroyd idolizes the station’s central dynamo for its production of wealth as well as for its violent physical power—its ability to kill. ‘[D]oubt[ing] the existence of the Deity but accept[ing] Carnot’s cycle’ (4), Holroyd upholds this engine as something like a Gord’ (5).10 However, he does not foresee the effect of his ‘theological lecture[s]’ (5) on his bullied subordinate Azuma-zi, who, the narrator observes, is ‘practically a savage still’ (6). Soon moved to pursue his own crude, animist brand of worship, Azuma-zi reveres the dynamo as more vital and powerful than any Buddha or ‘hid[den]’ god (6). Praying to the machine to save him from the Yorkshireman’s abuse, Azuma-zi serves his god by sacrificing Holroyd to it, pushing the engineer onto its terminals, which electrocute and kill him. Azuma-zi then seeks to please the dynamo by attempting—but this time failing—to sacrifice the station’s scientific manager, in a tense conflict that results in the stoker’s own fall to his death upon the mighty engine.

31Azuma-zi’s ‘Dynamo Fetish’ (8) is most deeply inspired, however, by the machine’s own absorbing, nonhuman voice. For, while Wells’s tale may first seem little more than racist caricature, it is distinguished by rich, immersive scenes of acoustic pattern and design, where the dynamo—like Paley’s watch—exercises influence and persuasion through its felt and heard material form. Azuma-zi, after all, kills Holroyd in response to the engine’s perceived call. He acts when ‘the noises of the machinery t[ake] a new rhythm and sound . . . like four words in his native tongue’ (7). Wells’s narrator describes a layered assemblage of sound in the Camberwell ­machine shed, where the oscillating rhythm of the smaller machines is drowned out by the distinctive voice of the ‘big dynamo’—

[by] the sustained drone of its iron core, which somehow set part of the ironwork humming. The place made the visitor’s head reel with the throb, throb, throb of the engines, the rotation of the big wheels, the spinning ball-valves, the occasional spittings of the steam, and over all the deep, unceasing, surging note of the big dynamo. This last noise was from an engineering point of view a defect, but Azuma-zi accounted it unto the monster for mightiness and pride. (4)

32In this passage, the narrator asks us both to read mechanical complexity and to hear it. He presents a ‘soundscape’ in the full sense of the term—an acoustic ‘field of interactions’ (Schafer 131), whose composite ‘texture’ emerges through the ‘sum’ and ‘differences’ of many individual sounds (Schafer 159). In the resulting portrait, we experience technical intricacy through the distinctive noises of the station’s parts and devices: their ‘drone’, ‘hum’, ‘throb’, and ‘note’.

33To grasp the full sensory impact of the machine shed, we must revisit the passage that opens this essay:

If it were possible we would have the noises of that shed always about the reader as he reads, we would tell all our story to such an accompaniment. It was a steady stream of din, from which the ear picked out the first one thread and then another; there was the intermittent snorting, panting, and seething of the steam-engines, the suck and thud of their pistons, the dull beat on the air as the spokes of the great driving-wheels came round, a note the leather straps made as they ran tighter and looser, and a fretful tumult from the dynamos; and, over all, sometimes inaudible, as the ear tired of it, and then creeping back upon the senses again, was the trombone note of the big machine. The floor never felt steady and quiet beneath one’s feet, but quivered and jarred. It was a confusing, unsteady place, and enough to send anyone’s thoughts jerking into odd zigzags. (4–5)

34Here ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ merges the tactile and the acoustic. We no longer simply hear the voice of the machine; we feel it—through the rhythm, beat, and jerk of the story. This intense sensory experience is, as Wells stresses, ‘enough to send anyone’s thoughts jerking’ (5). In effect, then, ‘The Lord’ creates a human and nonhuman community of acoustic affect and influence, which joins, structures, and suffuses different relations between people and things. As Steven Connor has argued more broadly, such auditory experience transforms the modern subject into a ‘membrane’, ‘a channel through which voices, noises, and musics travel’ (206–07). Certainly in Wells’s tale, the noises of the machine shed penetrate, as well as persuade, their listeners. Addressing both Azuma-zi and Wells’s readers, these sounds even sway us to identify with the ‘savage’ stoker, to the point where we too may feel his decentred, schizophrenic fervour—‘churned up’ by the shed’s ‘din and whirl’ (8).

  • 11 See, respectively, Bennet and Grusin.
  • 12 Arguably, one path of Victorian influence may be traced through the influence of Butler’s Erewhon o (...)

35Joining the voices and forces of things, this field of sound has a strikingly postmodern edge, looking forward to recent theories of vital matter and object-oriented ontology,11 and to the posthuman machinic assemblages of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.12 To use Deleuze and Guattari’s own vivid terms, ‘The Lord’’s soundscape ‘invades us, impels us, drags us, [and] transpierces us’ (348). Its machine shed anticipates both critics’ view of rhythm as a ‘deterritorializing’ intensity (Deleuze and Guattari 347) that breaks down identities and creates new ones, realized through ‘vibratory’ forms of ‘affinity’ (Deleuze and Guattari 313, 348). Moreover, like Deleuze’s concepts of difference and repetition, ‘The Lord’ explores the irregularity that the human ear may perceive amid the gaps of rhythm and cadence (Deleuze 21). The tale’s power station emits not only a ‘steady stream of din’, but also, within it, more erratic and ‘intermittent’ sounds—exemplified by the ‘surging note’ of its large dynamo, which ranges from ‘inaudible’ to ‘trombone’-like when it ‘creep[s] back upon the senses again’ (4–5).

36Beyond its resonance with postmodern theory, however, ‘The Lord’’s machine shed is paradoxically steeped in Paley’s spiritual discourse of divine technical form and affect. Through the acoustic form of its dynamos, engines, straps, ironwork, and people, this soundscape supports a community of industrial intensity and belief, embodied in felt aural and material practice. Indeed, if Paley spurs our faith through immersive material design, Wells exposes and destabilizes this method, treating readers as savage adherents who—like Azuma-zi—see, feel, hear, and admire the machine, but never quite understand it. Paley’s watch is certainly very different from Wells’s mighty dynamo, although the engine’s intense acoustic power still speaks both to its designed complexity and to more chaotic and entropic forms of noise and excess. The surging, uneven note of the dynamo is, after all, the result of an irregularity, an undesigned engineering defect.

37Felt and heard, this phenomenal experience binds together ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ in other surprisingly devotional ways: it persistently grounds the text’s greater community of machine worship, as practiced by industrial primitives and sophisticates alike. At the close of the tale, Wells’s narrator appears to herald the end of this technical faith. After Azuma-zi’s death, he pronounces: ‘So ended prematurely the worship of the Dynamo Deity, perhaps the most short-lived of all religions’ (11). Yet, far from conclusive, ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ ultimately questions the distinction between Azuma-zi’s fetish-worship and the presumed modern advancement and rationality of its metropolitan Britons—and even of the station’s own scientific manager, whom we last witness repairing the dynamo—touching it—with a cool devotion that could well pass as a secular form of faith. For, like the manager, Azuma-zi is also spurred by a ‘mysterious sense of service’: he is always ‘touching and handling the great dynamo,’ ‘polish[ing] and clean[ing] it until the metal parts [are] blinding in the sun’ (6).

  • 13 The various serial versions of The Time Machine reveal Wells’s careful editorial attention toward t (...)

38To explore the shadowy underside of this tactile devotion, a final turn to The Time Machine is instructive. For, while the Time Traveller congratulates himself on his superiority to the Morlocks, who naïvely ‘oil and clean [his machine]’ in a ‘dim’ attempt ‘to grasp its purpose’ (62), the tables turn with the restriction of the Traveller’s own vision. As he descends into the Morlocks’ dark subterranean wells, the Traveller is overcome by shock and noise, much like listeners in ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’. Once underground, his account is filled with the same industrial sounds that permeate the Camberwell engine shed: its ‘thud[s]’, ‘throb[s],’ and ‘hum[s]’ (43). These ‘oppressive’ noises dominate the Traveller’s sensory field, compensating for his indistinct vision of ‘vague’ ‘shapes’ and ‘grotesque black shadows’ (43–44)—forms that he likens, tentatively, to machines.13 Who, we might ask, dimly grasps the machine now? This shift, from visual authority to acoustic incapacity, transforms the character’s emotional state as well—from confidence to anger, anxiety, and murderous disgust toward the ‘obscene’ ape-like Morlocks (44). Battered by sound, and by dimly uncertain impressions of what he believes are engines, this man reveals the dark underbelly of both Paley’s and his own experiences of felt design. Wells’s Traveller is not only dethroned from his role of godlike designer; he also seeks to ‘read the machine’ in a state of almost complete obscurity, pursuing the analogy of Paley’s factory tour to its breaking point. Elsewhere, feeling the machine supports his faith and confidence, but, in the dark, he finds no opportunity for affirming material contact. In effect, the Traveller learns what it feels like to be an ignorant savage before Paley’s clock—and it is not pretty.

  • 14 On the fetish, see Pietz 5.

39Whether in the case of Azuma-zi’s great dynamo, the Traveller’s engine, or even the Morlocks’ shadowy contraptions, Wells’s fictions are preoccupied with grasping the machine. They seek—repeatedly and sometimes futilely—to see, hear, and feel objects of technical design and faith. In The Time Machine and ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, these devices support communities of intense spiritual feeling, whether shaped through sound, touch, or other forms of material immersion. Through these mechanisms, Wells anatomizes our own modern worship of technology, as a ‘primitive’ faith and affective persuasion central to contemporary industrial life. Both ironizing and invoking natural theology, his works challenge distinctions between savagery and modernity, between belief and scepticism, and between objects of wonder, idolatry, utility, and study. We might, therefore, compare Wells’s machines to fetish objects, understood both as affirmations and disavowals of absence (in psychoanalysis), and as products of cross-cultural social and spiritual exchange (in anthropology).14 Or, perhaps more profitably, we may view them as figures of prosopopoeia, as nonhuman things that resist personification while they still assume the properties of voice, instead both speaking for and in the absence of their presumed source and artificer (Riffaterre 107–08). For, instead of blindly reproducing Paley’s analogy, Wells’s dynamo and time machine are, in a manner of speaking, watches without watchmakers—but watches nonetheless: partial, disorderly, and repurposed objects, suggesting alternate, nonhuman forms of design, complexity, and agency. They are watches that we feel instead of see, and their tick is a penetrating, industrial hum.

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Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961.

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Butler, Samuel. Erewhon. 1872. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.

Connor, Steven. ‘The Modern Auditory I.’ Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Middle Ages to the Present. Ed. Roy PORTER. London: Routledge, 1997. 203–23.

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Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

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Eddy, Matthew. ‘Nineteenth-Century Natural Theology’. The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology. Ed. Russell R. Manning, John Hedley Brooke, and Fraser Watts. Oxford: OUP, 2013. 100–17.

Edwards, M. J. ‘Butler’s Savage, Paley’s Watch’. Notes and Queries 54.2 (June 2007): 145–47.

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Grusin, Richard A., ed. The Nonhuman Turn. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015.

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Ketabgian, Tamara. The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2011.

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Paley, William. Natural Theology. 1802. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

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Pietz, William. ‘The Problem of the Fetish, I.’ Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (Spring 1985): 5–17.

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1 On the uneven overlap between natural theology and ‘the discourse of design’, see Topham 38; Brooke and Cantor 141–206.

2 This article’s approach toward William Paley develops claims that I make in an earlier essay; see Ketabgian 2017.

3 This essay thus focuses on the narrative and discursive aspects of Paley’s moral philosophy, as well as on the moral, philosophical, and hermeneutic aims of Wells’s fiction.

4 Unless otherwise noted, this essay refers to the Heinemann volume form of The Time Machine, published in May of 1895.

5 I employ this term in a manner consistent with its historical usage by Wells and Samuel Butler, but also with a recognition of its troubling racist and colonial overtones. On the term’s effect of ‘temporal distancing’, see the article’s second section (‘Industrial Savages’) and Fabian 75.

6 See also Suvin 216-20 and Firchow.

7 A rocking stone is an unsteady Neolithic boulder, balanced to move upon slight pressure and possibly having served ritual functions.

8 See Edwards on precursors to Butler who portray similar constructions, most notably the figure of an ‘Indian’ in a poem by Sir Richard Blackmore entitled ‘The Creation’ (1712). A contemporary review accused Butler of conflating Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794) with Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion (1736). In his preface to the second edition of Erewhon, Butler claims he ‘gleaned his “specious misuses of analogy” from Butler’s Analogy’. See Jones 2.349; 1.156-57.

9 Present-day Malaysia and Singapore.

10 ‘God,’ in Holroyd’s Yorkshire accent.

11 See, respectively, Bennet and Grusin.

12 Arguably, one path of Victorian influence may be traced through the influence of Butler’s Erewhon on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972).

13 The various serial versions of The Time Machine reveal Wells’s careful editorial attention toward the visibility and obscurity of the Morlocks’ subterranean engines. For instance, in its 1894 run in The National Observer, we receive a more detailed visual description of these machines, although the Traveller still cannot view their operation in its entirety:
Huge machines with running belts and whirling fly-wheels rose out of the obscurity, and the grey bodies of the Morlocks dodged my light among the unsteady shadows. Several of the machines near me were disused and broken down. They appeared to be weaving machines, and were worked by leather belts running over drums upon great rotating shafts that stretched across the cavern. I could not see how the shafts were worked. (Wells 1894b, 14)

14 On the fetish, see Pietz 5.

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Electronic reference

Tamara Ketabgian, ‘Savages’ and Spiritual Engines: Feeling the Machine in H. G. Wells’s Time Machine and ‘Lord of the Dynamos’Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 87 Printemps | 2018, Online since 01 April 2018, connection on 21 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Tamara Ketabgian

Tamara Ketabgian is Professor of English at Beloit College. She is author of The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture (U of Michigan P, 2011), which was shortlisted for the annual book prize of the British Society for Literature and Science. Ketabgian has also written various articles and book chapters on nineteenth-century British literature, science, and technology. Her research has received fellowship support from the American Philosophical Society and the American Council of Learned Societies. She is currently at work on a book project entitled ‘Contrivance: Faith, Persuasion, and Technology in Victorian Scientific and Literary Culture’, which explores fantasies of technological design and spiritual intelligence from Charles Babbage to the present.
Tamara Ketabgian est Professeur d’anglais à Beloit College. Elle est l’auteur de Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture (U of Michigan P, 2011) qui a été sélectionné pour le prix annuel du meilleur ouvrage décerné par la British Society for Literature and Science. Tamara Katabgian a également écrit de nombreux articles et chapitres d’ouvrages sur la littérature britannique du xixe siècle, la science et la technologie. Sa recherche a reçu des financements de l’American Philosophical Society et de l’American Council of Learned Societies. Elle rédige actuellement un ouvrage intitulé « Contrivance: Faith, Persuasion, and Technology in Victorian and Scientific and Literary Culture », qui étudie les imaginaires du dessein technologique et de l’intelligence spirituelle de Charles Babbage à nos jours.

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