3. Curious Machines

The Living with Machines project at the Turing Institute and the British Library is looking how our relationship with machines evolved in the period from 1780 to 1914, looking at newspaper reports and other documentary sources held in the British Library collections.

As a companion piece to this serious project, let’s also explore how machines are documented historically in the V&A collections.

To do this, we need run a query for any objects containing the word “machine” from within the period. We’re going to focus on 1780 to 1820, as there are many machine made objects from later in the century that obscure some of these earlier results (and as this is just an example demonstrating our API, the fact we cherry picking the data to ensure it’s interesting for you the reader should not trouble us too much)

V&A Collections

To find the relevant records, we will need to pass the following parameters to the API:

  • q=machine - We want to query for the word “machine” appearing anywhere in the record

  • year_made_from=1780 - Showing objects made tom 1780

  • year_made_to=1820 - To objects made upto 1820

We also specify we want the results in CSV format for ease of use with pandas, and we want 80 results to give a good sample size.

import requests
import pandas as pd
lwm_df = pd.read_csv("https://api.vam.ac.uk/v2/objects/search?q=machine&page=1&year_made_from=1780&year_made_to=1820&response_format=csv&page_size=80")
accessionNumber accessionYear systemNumber objectType _primaryTitle _primaryPlace _primaryMaker__name _primaryMaker__association _primaryDate _primaryImageId _sampleMaterial _sampleTechnique _sampleStyle _currentLocation__displayName _objectContentWarning _imageContentWarning
30 T.289&A-1986 1986 O353068 Pair of stockings NaN England Unknown NaN 19th century 2019LM2909 cotton (textile) machine knitted NaN In store False False
49 T.279-1973 1973 O142422 Evening dress NaN Great Britain Unknown NaN c.1820 2015HN3034 silk satin hand sewing NaN In store False False
41 T.278&A-1968 1968 O354074 Pair of sleeves NaN England Unknown NaN 1815-1825 2018LE8995 NaN NaN NaN In store False False
75 W.61-1989 1989 O12610 Mould NaN London Unknown NaN 19th century 2017JY9997 Wood Hand carved NaN In store False False
79 W.73A-1989 1989 O18827 Mould NaN London Unknown NaN 19th century 2017JY9946 Wood Hand carved NaN In store False False

Graphing Machines

Let’s look at that in a graph now to more easily see what types of object mentioning ‘machine’ were most popular from that time period.

import requests
import altair as alt
import pandas as pd

req = requests.get('https://api.vam.ac.uk/v2/objects/clusters/object_type/search?q=machine&year_made_from=1780&year_made_to=1820&cluster_size=100')
lwm_df = pd.DataFrame(req.json())

bars = alt.Chart(lwm_df).mark_bar().encode(

text = bars.mark_text(
    align='left', baseline='middle', dx=3

(bars + text).properties(height=1000, title="Objects mentioning machine from 1780 to 1820")

So it seems likely that many of these objects were created using some form of machine (‘mould’ and ‘dress fabric’ for example), but there are some un-expected objects here that might perhaps be considered machines themselves, including an ‘Exhibition Box’ and a ‘Deceptive Glass’.

Let’s look in more detail at the Deceptive Glass, retrieving the image.

Deceptive Glass

req = pd.read_csv('https://api.vam.ac.uk/v2/objects/search?q=machine&year_made_from=1780&year_made_to=1820&kw_object_type=deceptive%20glass&response_format=csv&page_size=50')
accessionNumber systemNumber objectType _primaryTitle _primaryPlace _primaryMaker__name _primaryMaker__association _primaryDate _primaryImageId _sampleMaterial _sampleTechnique _sampleStyle _currentLocation__displayName _objectContentWarning _imageContentWarning
0 C.210-1913 O3417 Deceptive glass NaN England Unknown NaN ca. 1820-1880 2006AM3610 NaN NaN BRITAIN British Galleries, Room 122b False False
## ipyosd not working yet

from ipyosd import OSDViewer
from ipywidgets import Layout
OSDViewer(url="https://framemark.vam.ac.uk/collections/2006AM3610/info.json", layout=Layout(width='75%', height='675px'))
from IPython.display import Image

Image(url = "https://framemark.vam.ac.uk/collections/2006AM3610/full/600,/0/default.jpg")

Hmmm, it’s not entirely clear what’s machine like (or even deceptive) about this. Let’s look at the object description:

req = requests.get('https://api.vam.ac.uk/v2/museumobject/O3417')
object_record = req.json()
"<b>Object Type</b><br>A modest, entirely plain glass used for ices, perhaps made by the newly invented ice cream-making 'machine'.  Although in outline the same shape as a drinking glass, the bowl is all but solid, allowing only a minimal lick. Made in the mid-19th century, at a time when cheap, press-moulded glass was beginning to become the most available type, a hand-made but undecorated  artefact such as this was still extremely marketable.<br><br><b>Ownership & Use</b><br>Used in cafes, seaside booths and places of entertainment, a smear of ice was spread on the surface and licked off by the customer. The glass was then returned to the seller for immediate use by the next customer.<br><br><b>Materials & Making</b><br>This 'lick' is made in strong, brilliantly clear lead glass.  Hand-blown and tooled, the 'bowl' is virtually solid. Each section of the foot, stem and bowl is made from extra glass added at various stages, and probably at least two people were involved in the making of this glass."

So, the glass was not made by a machine, but was perhaps designed for use with new ice cream-making “machines” from the mid-19th century.


From lessons learn from recent world events, we do not advise sharing an ice cream licking glass without proper cleaning in-between.

Exhibition Box

Let’s go back to look at another of the possible machines from our search query, the “Exhibition Box”

req = pd.read_csv('https://api.vam.ac.uk/v2/objects/search?q=machine&year_made_from=1780&year_made_to=1820&kw_object_type=Exhibition%20box&response_format=csv&page_size=50')
accessionNumber systemNumber objectType _primaryTitle _primaryPlace _primaryMaker__name _primaryMaker__association _primaryDate _primaryImageId _sampleMaterial _sampleTechnique _sampleStyle _currentLocation__displayName _objectContentWarning _imageContentWarning
0 P.44:1 to 4-1955 O118142 Exhibition box Showbox Great Britain Gainsborough, Thomas designer ca. 1781-1782 2006AE7709 Oak NaN NaN NaN False False
## ipyosd not working yet

from ipyosd import OSDViewer
from ipywidgets import Layout
OSDViewer(url="https://framemark.vam.ac.uk/collections/2006AE7709/info.json", layout=Layout(width='75%', height='675px'))
from IPython.display import Image

Image(url = "https://framemark.vam.ac.uk/collections/2006AE7709/full/600,/0/default.jpg")

Well, this is looking a bit more machine like. The Exhibition Box has a fascinating history, you can read up more on the object page It would be interesting to see if this “machine” (and others of a similiar kind) was discussed in newspapers from the era.

Further Work

  • Combine more mentions of machines in newspapers with examples of the objects from the V&A collections

  • Hopefully the Living with Machines team will be carrying out the very important task of mapping the spread of ice-cream machines throughout the United Kingdom, as reported in regional newspapers.