Oliver Cross: A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but laptops are dull

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THIS week I paid my first visit to Bradford industrial museum, which is full of fascinating things but left me feeling slightly melancholy.

It’s housed in the former Moorside worsted-spinning mill, which was built in solid Yorkshire stone in 1875 and might have lasted for 500 years or more if the world hadn’t changed in ways its founders could not have foreseen.

The machines and engines in the museum, many of them from the 19th century but still working, are things of great beauty and precision – and isn’t precision a form of beauty? Discuss.

The names of the makers, and the towns where they were made, are cast in big letters on the bodies of the machines in a mixture of civic pride and Victorian bombast. This was the pre-global economy (although Hunslet locomotives were exported all over the world) and the places of manufacture – Leeds, Manchester, Oldham, Huddersfield, Sheffield and the rest - are a reminder that, before things went topsy-turvy, the north of England was right at the centre of the country’s economic life and could manage pretty well without London and the South-east.

Modern electronic machines, which may be made anywhere, are far cleverer than the machines perfected when the North clothed much of the world, but I can’t think that many non-nerds will be queuing up to see present-day computers or photocopiers 100 years in the future. You can see how a steam engine works and marvel at it, but the laptop I’m trying to commune with as I write this is not an object of beauty and will be discarded without regret as soon as it needs updating.

The museum has a very good section on the printing industry – and it’s rather depressing to see the ‘hot metal’ press halls which I knew when I started my newspaper career, and which were full of life, noise and skill, reduced to a visitor attraction.

The more so, I think, because while the northern textile industry – often involving deafening noise, dangerous conditions and harrowing toil – was not an unalloyed blessing, printing was a well-paid, highly skilled and respected calling. The hot-metal printers I worked with went into the trade thinking they had found a good job for life and were mostly devastated to find that they were wrong.

I know how they felt because my greatest skill as a newspaper sub-editor was the ability to accurately ‘cast off’ – to judge how many column inches a piece of copy would fill when translated into type. I need not have bothered. Like many things – totting-up, spelling or lettering, for example – it can now be done by any intelligent 12-year-old with a computer. Which is obviously better for the world but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to feel a little sad about it.

Incidentally, one of the most enjoyable features of the museum is its gallery of old vehicles, particularly Jowett cars and vans, built in Idle, Bradford, between 1906 and 1954.

I can’t generally tell one car from another but the Jowetts display is inspiring. It shows designers constantly experimenting to build an exciting car. There are streamlined sports cars, light-weight vans, cars (I think this was probably a mistake) with tillers instead of steering wheels and cars with wooden bodies covered in a leather-look fabric. I find it a little sad that all this innovation and imagination cumulated, when car production went global, in the Fiat Punto.

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