The Secret of the Machines

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Line 1] the ore-bed and the mine. The sources of unworked metal and coal, two crucial industrial materials.

[Line 4] gauged. Measured.

[Line 6] a thousandth of an inch. A fine measurement used in engineering.

[Lines 9-12] We can pull …and read and write. This long list consists entirely of common human activities, all of which have been mastered by machines.

[Line 13-17] Would you call a friend …at his side? The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866. Effective telephone calls were achieved a few years later. Transatlantic phone calls became a reality in 1878 when Alexander Graham Bell made a pioneering courtesy call to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

[Line 19] Western Ocean. The Atlantic.

[Line 20] seventy thousand horses. Horse-power is the term used to measure the force of an engine. The apparently massive figure used by Kipling is not fanciful, though it seems that at first he thought it might be. Originally he estimated the ‘rough average’ horse-power required for a trans-Atlantic crossing to be 30,000, a figure that was given in the first editions of both both

A History of England

and A School History of England. An American reader, taking this figure to refer to the Mauretania, which is mentioned two lines further on in the poem and which had a much higher horse power, wrote to Kipling pointing out what could be seen as a mistake. Kipling acknowledged that the figure was misleading and upgraded his general average to seventy thousand which was large enough to cover the Mauretania. The correction was quickly made and appeared in subsequent editions of the book. See Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Ed. Thomas Pinney IV, 63-4.

[Line 21] The boat-express.

Alastair Wilson writes: in those days, you went by railway to the port of embarkation: unless you lived in Liverpool or Southampton, there was no other way to reach your boat – whether it was a luxury liner like the Mauretania or the Don or the Magdalena to roll down to Rio. So the railway companies, in conjunction with the shipping company, would lay on a special train (virtually all from London, though there were some from the north-east to Liverpool) for specific sailings. These were known as ‘boat-expresses’, and took you right to the quay (cf, line 22) where your ship lay, so that there was the minimum hassle in transferring yourself and your mountain of baggage. Boat-expresses lasted right to the end of the era of passenger liner travel in the early 1970s – indeed, I’m not sure that occasionally they may not run even now for the major cruise liners, though a standard ‘Virgin Voyager’ for the QM2 in 2006 is not in the same league as an all-Pullman boat express for the Queen Mary in 1936! [A.W.]

[Line 22] Mauretania The Mauretania was an outstanding recent example of the new type of high speed luxury passenger liner. Built at Newcastle upon Tyne and launched in 1906, it was at the time the biggest liner in the world, a monstrous nine-decked city sent to sea. The correspondence referred to above in the note on line 20 seems to have slightly unnerved Kipling, who was immensely proud of his accuracy on technical matters. After accepting the correction on the Mauretania’s horse-power, he writes: ‘I began the next verse with an allusion to the M. and her nine decks. Aren’t there eleven as a matter of fact?’

[Line 30] cistern. Usually a metal tank storing water for distribution as and when it is required. Here the ‘cistern’ is a natural source, with the water coming from mountain snow and being distributed by man-made machines.

[Line 37] the Law by which we live. Always an important concept in Kipling, the Law by which we live is an unshakeable moral imperative. In this case, it is that the machines represent a form of absolute truth that is particularly difficult for human beings to understand.

[Line 42] rod. A slender bar of metal acting as a shaft or connector.

[Lines 43-48] Our touch … The Gods … children of your brain. Another example of Kipling’s constant, though often oblique, rejection of religion. The machines have the ability to change the nature of all created things except The Gods. That sounds like a conventional enough religious attitude, but it is overthrown in the next few lines. The machines insist that they have produced a kind of smoke-screen which is temporarily concealing the fact that it is you, the human beings, who are the true gods, with the machines nothing more than children of your brain! If the machines are to function to their full capacity they must be responsibly controlled by the Gods who have invented them. That is why it is so important for man to understand the Law (line 37) that machines ‘are not built to comprehend a lie.’

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved