Kurt Ewald’s “The Beauty of Machines” (1925-6)
Translated from the German by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.
From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology
of Original Articles. (Whitney Library of Design. New York, NY: 1975).
• • •
Beauty is among those conceptions which are apparently easy to explore, but about whose true nature no one will ever be clear. Of course we strive, as our fathers and grandfathers strove from different premises, to attain a perfection answering to the ideal presentation of beauty. Naturally we can never discover whether our own ideal image comes near to absolute beauty; we have to believe it. Kant regards a material object as beautiful if its appearance arouses the feeling of a pleasant emotion — provided that this feeling is not traceable to baser instincts in the beholder. He calls it ‘a sensation of a finer sort, so called either because one can enjoy it for a longer time without satiation or exhaustion, or because it as it were presupposes a sensitiveness of the soul making it receptive to virtuous emotions, or because it is evidence of talent and superiority of intellect.’ We are not disposed to quarrel with this definition, since we find that our own experience confirms it. We also feel justified in making use of the great philosopher’s definition for the aesthetics of technology, and in drawing the following conclusions from it.
To say that the perception of beauty in technical things in general, and in the construction of machines in particular, is something arrived at only in the most recent times is one of those presumptuous and superficial exaggerations in which this hasty, readily forgetful age abounds. Let us see how far such an assertion is founded on fact.
Three stages of development can be clearly distinguished in the history of the construction of machines, each having characteristics which are of decisive significance in the assessment of the concept of beauty. The first period begins with the initial efforts to put into practice the thought processes on which a given machine was to be based; it covers various unsuccessful, but continually improving, experiments until the point is reached at which the inventor is satisfied with the reliable working of his latest model. Watt’s steam engine, Fulton’s steamship, Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive can obviously be looked on as goals of that kind, standing at the end of a long, or not so long, series of trials. Once satisfied in principle that the machine will work without trouble, we try to aim further, to produce a perfected model which gives the highest performance with the most economical means; this struggle for mechanical efficiency represents the second stage of development. Efficiency rises steadily, getting nearer and nearer to a theoretically calculable, but never attainable value; finally it reaches a level near the limits of practical possibility, and can only be improved in the course of a comparatively long period of development work on small details. Broadly speaking, the invention of the machine has been perfected. Now we can think about putting the new-won aids to work on a wider scale. The harvest-time begins, in which we draw profit from the earlier experiments to the greatest possible extent. The purely mechanical-technical, theoretical-constructional processes are eclipsed by aims on a national-economic level. The third, and at present the most recent, period in the history of machine construction is the period of quantity production and standardization.
Very many kinds of machine construction are undoubtedly already well into this last stage of development. Certainly most modern machines arouse in us that feeling that Kant regards as the criterion of ‘beauty.’ A good modern machine is thus an object of the highest aesthetic value — we are aware of that. In colloquial speech we may describe such a machine as ‘beautiful’ — the philosopher weighs up his concept more cautiously and calls it ‘sublime,’ for its appearance does not at all arouse a pleasant sensation as ‘joyful and smiling’; it evokes pleasure ‘with a shudder.’ How it actually makes its effect is something we can only appreciate with our emotions; we get our true view of objects whose outward appearance is displeasing when we accept that those features which account for the lack of harmony are none the less  aesthetically necessary. Observations of this kind lead to the following conclusions: the machine makes its effect on the beholder through its working as much as through its form. Its working is always ‘sublime,’ as its aesthetic effect can only be recognizably influenced by its styling. This alone can raise the product of iron and steel to become a thing of artistic worth, or on the other hand cancel out the aesthetic effect of a machine in motion. If we look further into the rules that govern good design, we find that the factors of highest aesthetic value lie precisely in the purely practical, in the sober clarity of the style of construction. Modern machines are built on purely functional lines, with the purpose of achieving a given performance with the most economical — which means the most perfect — means. The more consciously and methodically this aim is pursued, the more practically and functionally the construction of the machine will be conceived and the more satisfying will be its aesthetic effect — and no wonder, for the more clearly will the beholder appreciate the intentions of those who conceived and created the machine. The same threads are being spun here, connecting the creator, his creation and the beholder, which bind us when we look at a work of art: we experience the sensation of beauty or nobility when the work of art fills us with the intellectual and spiritual richness of the master.
Despite all that there is in common, no one will be so bold as to compare even the most perfect machine with a work of representational art. The two belong to different worlds; there are eternally divisive barriers between them.
We are proud of our ‘beautiful’ machines today, and inclined to look down on the ‘tasteless’ productions of our ancestors. True, the machines of the past do not at all conform with our ideas of good design. But does that really make them any less beautiful? Unquestionably the machines of the first development period were built entirely functionally. They were thus subject to the same aesthetic rules that we have recognized as correct for the present time. They must have seemed ‘sublime’ to sympathetic people of the time, insofar as their design followed that time’s concepts of the highest technical efficiency. The same is true of the second period of machine construction, which we have called the struggle for efficiency. Here again the target is maximum technical suitability, though this did not always come out quite clearly in the design. We can remember machines of that period which were consciously endowed with elaborate decoration; we are thinking here of the richly ornamented shields on locomotives and ships or of artistically forged fences round steam engines; also the preference for shiny copper and brass components. This may seem to be a secondary aim of a purely aesthetic kind, but in fact such decoration also comes within the concept of the period of what was technically appropriate. Loving attention to detail and artistic decoration belong just as inseparably with good craftsmanship as do precise fits and tolerances with the mass-production techniques of today. Such decoration became false, and consequently inappropriate and aesthetically objectionable, only when it was used to make manufactured parts look as if they were hand-made.
There have been faultless machines in every period, so long as we interpret ‘faultless’ by the standards of the contemporary technique — that is our conclusion so far. There have also been men in all periods who have understood the beauty of machines; Max Eyth or Max Maria von Weber give eloquent witness of this. If there is still a general idea that the aesthetics of the machine have only been fostered recently, that can be attributed simply to the attitude of laymen towards the essential nature of technique. The first steam engines, which opened up the age of technology and industry, were unwelcome foreign bodies in people’s lives; only a few understood and foresaw their blessings; the great mass of people, especially the educated classes, met them with undisguised hostility. Only the disadvantages of the machines were perceived: they destroyed the peace fullness of nature with their noise and their smoke, they led to the building of ugly, dirty factories; only turbulent, uneducated people liked them. We can sympathize with the educated laity of that time if they were  wholly unsympathetic with the new phenomenon; given the conditions, they just could not get it into their heads that there could be any connection between the concepts of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘machine.’ People stuck to this basically negative attitude for a long, long time, more and more repelled by the unattractive social and industrial effects which the mighty Industrial Revolution brought with it. They coined the catchword of factory-work, which degraded men to the level of slaves of the machine. They obviously never thought about the unfortunates who must have built the pyramids they admired so much, or the galley-slaves who served as prime mover for the proud fleets of the Romans. Only quite recently has a real feeling for machines penetrated to wider circles and with it a general sense of the machine’s aesthetic effect. And what caused this conversion? The machine had long ceased to be a foreign body in a man’s life; it had not only become a part of the general life-style, it had become an indispensable object of the daily life of every individual, even every layman. Only that can explain how it was that such early mechanical inventions as water-wheels, windmills, bells, guns, mail-coaches and ships had for a long time been accepted and utilized by poets, thus being valued at their true aesthetic worth; they had been among mankind’s valuable aids for many years when the first steamship made its appearance. It is only fair to say that the road to an understanding of technical beauty was made more difficult for the layman by examples of ill-designed machines, not to mention those monstrous efforts to create a technical style with artistic means. Everyone knows that there is no single solution to any technical problem; even with the best of systems there will always be a number of constructive possibilities to reach the same end. To work out the harmonious solution calls for a delicate feeling for design, for the management of lines and surfaces. We can safely say that this feeling for form is generally richly developed. (Our illustrations give examples from the most widely differing branches of modern machine construction, which beyond doubt can be described as aesthetic). What role individual surfaces and lines play in the total effect, what means are employed, or have to be avoided, in the achievement of a good form, what the engineer can himself consciously contribute to a shapely design, all this must be sorted out in detail when opportunity arises.
How our views on the beauty of machines will develop in future can be forecast with some certainty on the basis of our reasoning up to date. We know that machine has gone through the three prescribed development periods; the aesthetic effect alters with technics progress. Development proceeds as a rule more peacefully as the machine advances nearer to perfection accordingly the styling also changes more steadily and more slowly. We can show this by reference examples from everyday life. Motor-locomotives, which at present have reached the transition from the first to the second stage, cannot yet be said to be technically perfect and so aesthetically unobjectionable; but their technical improvement, and with it the perfection of their styling, is progressing rapidly. The steam locomotive, in contrast, has already reached the third stage — after the end of the second stage, technical improvement is generally reckoned to have come to an end, apart from details; thereafter the exterior form will change only slowly, and not in a striking way. Thus the fact that the steam locomotive has hardly undergone any improvement in technical beauty in the past decade is in no way surprising; it is a logical conclusion from the relationship between the aesthetic and the technical, which has been more closely laid down here. Standardization and normalization ought to represent the climax of technical development. It follows that machines which have already reached the final stage will not in future experience any essential or sudden change. That is not to say that particular types of machine have come to the end of their development. The steam locomotive — to stay with our earlier example — is renewing itself in the turbine engine or the high-pressure engine; but both of these are mechanically separate forms of the earlier types, to such an extent that they in their turn will have to go through the three development stages on their own account, both technically and aesthetically.