Library Helps Us Laugh at Technology


W. Heath Robinson, Railway Ribaldry, 1935

Heavy Metal: The Humor of Mechanization features selections from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, the world’s largest public collection of wit and humor

SAN FRANCISCO, April 10, 2023 – With A.I. and ChatGPT capturing the zeitgeist and with Skynet on the horizon, frankly all of which scare the living daylights out of us, San Francisco Public Library is offering an outlet for our collective anxiety with some welcome humor. On view through June 30, 2023 at the Main Library, Heavy Metal: The Humor of Mechanization is a jaunty look back at how the advent of new technological innovations has always engendered a sense of puzzlement and wariness in new adopters.

Heavy Metal: The Humor of Mechanization showcases the Library’s Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, considered the world’s largest collection of wit and humor. The exhibition takes a comic look at mechanization as it is depicted in the home, factory, transportation, communication and art. The exhibition begins with the coming of the railway, and the Victorian experience of travel reading—when only so much scenery could be enjoyed. It then moves to the great expositions at the close of the nineteenth century, where giants of progress and machine-making extolled the future. The golden age of the all-electric home is featured in Blondie Goes to Leisureland, in which the popular 1930s comic strip shills for corporate advertisers. Anxiety and mistrust of the machine find a comic outlet in the gadget wizardry of two zany inventors—W. Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg—living and writing from both sides of “the Pond.” Artists weaned on Wonder Bread and the fast car machinery of the twentieth century round out the show. This section features delightful examples of one of the great feminist comic strips, Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia, which debuted in 1981 and entertained audiences with its caustic wit and daily humor for over 30 years. Bruce McCall, whose cover art for The New Yorker depicted his vision of a future that never was, is another great reason to check out the exhibit.

Andrea Grimes, program manager of Book Arts & Special Collections at the Main Library and curator of this exhibition says, “In a spontaneous moment of unmechanical creativity I recognized that even though I am without any mechanical ability at all I was drawn to the currency of this theme: the advancement-of—and some may say wayward momentum—of technology. I prefer to find the humor in the foibles and unintended consequences of the mechanical age. My sidekicks are Rube Goldberg and W. Heath Robinson, masters of the lunatic contraptions and gizmos that so captured the golden age of mechanical progress and high anxiety. Nat Schmulowitz, founder of the Library’s collection, provided one of the most thoughtful mottoes: ‘Without humor the world is doomed.’ That he was probably very unmechanical also helps; in displaying these wonderful books, I find an immense sense of relief knowing that humorists everywhere continue to shake up the world with their laugh-out-loud views of mechanization and our continued but wayward technological “progress” toward the stars.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Library’s Art, Music & Recreation Department presents themed film screenings during the month of April. All films are shown in the Main Library’s Koret Auditorium at noon:

  • April 13: Modern Times (1936)
  • April 20: Desk Set (1957)
  • April 27: Idiocracy (2006)

The Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor was founded by San Francisco attorney, book collector and humanitarian Nat Schmulowitz (1889-1966) on April Fool’s Day, 1947, when he presented 93 jest books to San Francisco Public Library. He faithfully continued to add toward the establishment of what is now considered the world’s largest public collection of wit & humor.  As far as we know, there is no evidence that Schmulowitz was mechanically inclined.


Heavy Metal: The Humor of Mechanization
Through June 30, 2023
Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Skylight Gallery, 6th Floor

April 10, 2023