“During the industrial era people were forced to endure long and bitter conflicts in their struggle to participate in the political system…It remains to be seen whether the transformation of traditional industrial societies will be accompanied by a regress of democratic structures or whether progress towards more democracy is already culturally anchored and irreversible.”
Information panel, Ruhr Museum, 2019
Never one to miss out on a seminal moment, in 1790 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe travelled to Upper Silesia, then on the fringes of the Prussian Empire – where he witnessed the first ‘fire-machines’ – or steam engines, to operate on the continent.
Goethe penned a few lines of advice to his hosts on what was then an isolated frontier, asking them: “Far from educated people, at the end of the empire, who helps you, find treasures and bring them to light?.”
The polymath’s answer was succinct: “only understanding and honesty help; the two keys that lead to any treasure that the earth holds.”
For Goethe, rational humanism, technological progress – and the ever-greater task of getting riches out from underneath the earth – could be conceived of as a single project.