The author has kindly shared with our readers the following passage from his 2015 book, Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body. — George P. Landow].

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y the late 1820s factory accidents attracted attention all over England. The scenes of grisly dismemberment in A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (which ran in The Lion from 25 January through 22 February 1828) helped establish and then popularize what became known as “the man-eating-machine” genre in daily newspapers. Sir Charles Bell's deep religious faith, combined with his experience treating victims of these kinds of factory accidents at Middlesex Hospital, undoubtedly influenced his decision to choose the hand as his topic when he was invited to contribute a volume to the Bridgewater Treatises. For him and, as the 1831 Introduction of Frankenstein also makes clear, for many Britons in the nineteenth century/the perfection” of the human hand directly signified "the presence of the hand of the Creator" (Bell 1833: 223). In two lengthy chapters of the treatise, Bell analyzes how "the Author of nature" constructed the superior sense of touch in the hand and states the chief reason for doing so: to show that the most perfect proof of power and design" resides in the hands sensory apparatus (172, 175). Its flawless design reflects Bell's belief in a world quite literally wrought “pure from the Maker’s hands” (220). What I want to emphasize in drawing attention to this point is how Bells experience treating the victims of factory injuries leads to a "bodily” update of Paley's 1802 work on the eye. Once jeopardized, hands become the new threshold for evaluating "Design" in the natural world. Defending the wonders of the Enlightenment and the very early nineteenth-century eye became, in effect, scientifically and religiously outdated with the onset of automatic manufacture. Bell’s 1833 treatise thus updates Paley with its focus on the newly important body part.

The Hand taps into the same religiosity that made Victor Frankenstein's attempt at handmade human creation so "supremely frightful” in Shelley’s 1831 introduction (9). New with Bell, though, is a different, more timely, inflection of cultural anxiety surrounding the process and perils of industrial mechanization. As recent critics have shown, machines were often described by pro'industrialists as organic and cooperative improvements to the human anatomy. Charles Babbage’s Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, for example, is principally interested in the substitution of machinery for human limbs. Published just one year before Bell's The Hand, Babbage's Economy glorifies mechanisms that “exer[t] forces too great for human power" and that "execut[e] operations too delicate for human touch" (1833: 47). Babbage praises the “giant arm” of the engine that works "with almost fairy fingers [to] entwin[e] the meshes of the most delicate fabric" (49, 50). This focus on mechanical prosthetic improvement (and thus the limitations of the human hand) stands in direct opposition to Bell's notion of an appendage designed "pure from the Maker's hands” (1833: 220). Babbage's comments nonetheless show how critics and supporters of the factory system produced alternate and contradictory representations of body-machine relations.

None of this is meant to suggest that Bell was hostile to factory production or even mechanization per se . . . Nowhere in Bell's treatise, in fact, does he criticize the productive power of automatic manufacture. Instead, he is at pains to demonstrate how all mechanical contrivances are themselves based on the model of anatomical perfection embodied in the divinely constructed hand. The subject matter of Bell's introduction is telling in this respect. He does not open his treatise with a discussion of the perfection of the human hand in comparison to animal appendages as one might reasonably expect in a work of natural philosophy. This highlights why we should read Bell against the strictly evolutionist “Design” grain. In contrast to traditional works of natural philosophy Bell opens with an unexpected anecdote about how the perfection of the hand "makes us insensible to its use” (1833: 13) in the increasingly mechanized world of the 1830s:

A man will make journeys to see an engine stamp a coin or turn a block; yet the organs [hands] through which he has a thousand sources of enjoyment, and which are in themselves more exquisite in design and more curious both in contrivance and in mechanism, do not enter his thoughts. [12]

Indeed, Bell s repeated emphasis on the God-given hand as the model for all "mechanical contrivances' becomes the dominant theme of the treatise (114). In one notable demonstration of this theme, Bell illustrates the skeletal mechanism running from the hand to the shoulder required to make use of a traditional hammer.

According to Bell, the hand's use of the hammer "is, in truth, similar to the operation of the fly wheel, by which the gradual motion of an engine is accumulated to a point of time, and. a blow is struck capable of crushing or of stamping a piece of gold or silver" (1833:116). This reasoning prompts him to ask, "in what respect does the mechanism of the arm differ from the engine with which the printer throws off his sheet?" (116). Here and throughout his treatise, Bell focuses not so much on judging the usefulness of the new productive power offered bp automatic machinery. Instead, he emphasizes the ways in which machinery achieves its productive power by utilizing a series of mechanical components originally designed by the Creator in the hand. His era’s tendency to overlook what he considers the original perfection—and by extension, Gods role in scientific development—often appears as Bells chief concern regarding the era's unprecedented industrial advancements.

Looking at a meteorological analogy from the latter part of the treatise should help illustrate this point. If "one sees the fire of heaven brought down into a phial," Bell writes, "and materials compounded, to produce an explosion louder than the [original] thunder, and ten times more destructive, the storm will no longer speak an impressive language to him" (1833: 230). In Bell’s metaphor, "the fire of heaven brought down in a phial” represents the human co-option of the hand's divine construction in mechanical inventions such as Babbage's, where man-made automatic "hands" work "with almost fairly fingers" to accomplish previously human tasks (Babbage 1833: 50). Extending Bell’s meteorological metaphor along these lines, the "materials compounded, to produce an explosion louder than the original thunder, and ten times more destructive" signifies the man made, technical, and therefore more powerful improvements made to God's original design. Lastly in Bell's metaphor, man's development and implementation of this mechanized system makes God's originating manual component "no longer . . . impressive . . . to him William Dodd emphasizes a similar point as he compares factory machinery with the human body: "[The worker] sees nothing but an endless variety of shafts, drums, straps, and wheels in motion; and though these may, at first, inspire him with a feeling of respect for, and admiration of, [the machinery] . . . this feeling will vanish, when he reflects on their power to destroy or render useless for life that exalted piece of mechanism formed by and after the image of God! (1968:312, emphasis added),

Of course, for all the mechanical implications of Bell’s treatise, given the terms of the Earl of Bridgewater's bequest, the treatise actually does also defend an argument for Design from an evolutionary standpoint. Bell performs a sustained comparison of human hands in relation to "lower" animals for large sections of the text. But even this strategy is framed by a critique of his culture’s tendency to be drawn more to “what is uncommon and monstrous" than to 'what is natural and perfectly adjusted to its office” (1833: 12). Bell maintains that “a vulgar admiration is excited by seeing the spider-monkey pick up a straw, or a piece of wood, with its tail; or the elephant searching the keeper's pocket with his trunk” (13). This chiding is relatively innocuous in Bell’s work, though, precisely because the imperative to distinguish humans from animals by way of the hand was not yet as urgent in the 1820s and 1830s as the one to distinguish them from the machines that were injuring and maiming them in the process of mechanical supersession. The extraordinary sales figures for Bell s treatise before The Origin of Species (1859)—and, therefore, before the full-blown debate about evolutionary adaptation—suggest that Bell's view of “manual perfection” was reassuring to a culture whose hands were being outperformed, displaced, and mangled by machines. When The Hand was published in June 1833, the first edition was already oversubscribed by 300 copies (Topham 1998: 244). This is impressive, considering that a successful print run at that time would have been around 500 copies, Pickering published 2,000 additional copies in September 1833, 3,000 in April 1834, and 2,500 in October 1834 (Topham 1993:284). Thus Bell’s 1833 treatise marks another distinct historical moment when representations of the hand sat precariously between perfection and superiority in relation to animals on the one side and between imperfection and productive inadequacy in relation to machines on the other, The “Hand” as a factory operative therefore becomes a powerful locus for thinking about relations of human, animal, and mechanism. The “Machinery Question,” as those in the nineteenth century experienced it, was ultimately a question about the limits of the human—and the debate about industrialization was the most poignant context for asking that question about human limits until Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Many cultural commentators came to the same conclusion in exactly the same year. In an article entitled “The Factory System” from April 1833, an author for Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine (John Wilson) located human factory operatives in this same limmal space between machines and animals: Though as a class they are degraded, they are yet human; they feel, though you treat them as such, that they are neither machines nor brutes” (450). The anxiety stemming from the precariousness of the body part so essential to notions of what it meant to be human helped inaugurate an intense cultural fascination with the hand for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Related material


Capuano, Peter. Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2015.

Last modified 8 March 2017