The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

An Age of Invention

When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 Britain was undoubtedly the world's leading manufacturer: 'the workshop of the world', as one commentator described it. In terms of output however, the biggest expansion was yet to come: over the next fifty years the British economy would grow by 400%, providing opportunities for thousands of small businesses and a creating a new and economically dominant middle class. In part this expansion was due to the exploitation of overseas territories and markets but it was also due to the development of science and technology, as much a hallmark of the Victorian era as it is of our own.

When a Cambridge don called William Wherwell first used the word 'scientist' in 1840 to describe someone who would base their ideas solely upon what could be observed he was acting in the same spirit of 'common sense' that inspired followers of Jeremy Bentham to devise the Poor Law. For scientists to apply this principle it was essential to gather and classify as much information as possible about the natural world, hence Darwin's expedition to the Galapagos Islands. What he found there led him inexorably to the theory of evolution, although he delayed publication of his conclusions, knowing that they would upset many people. Nevertheless he went ahead eventually and even those who opposed his conclusions could not deny his evidence. In the same way that the 'fact' of the Irish Famine forced politicians to revise their ideas about the role of government, so the 'facts' of science forced Victorian believers to redefine their notions of 'truth'.

With the pillars of received wisdom tottering everywhere there was no end to the speculation that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake could unleash. Respectable folk looked on uneasily, but they could hardly ignore the business opportunities that the advancement of science created, especially in the area of communications and entertainment. The first battery was made by an Italian, Alexander Volta, in 1799. Twenty years later Michael Faraday showed how electricity could be made to turn a wheel. The greater the current, the greater its turning power. Soon it was realised that electricity could also be used to send messages (the telegraph) and produce light. It could also be used to revive patients who were apparently dead whilst electric corsets were marketed which were believed to promote healthy breathing and chest development in women.

Such devices illustrate two more Victorian obsessions: firstly with 'gadgets' that could somehow enhance the quality of life and secondly with 'remedies' - cures for every kind of ailment. It was the age of the pill and the potion, of elixirs and ointments, of mixtures and magic ingredients. Frauds and tricksters abounded as well as legitimate inventors and businessmen. To bring all these new inventions to the notice of the buying public required the development of an area of industry with which we are all too familiar - advertising. The Victorian era was also the era of the billboard and the poster. Public spaces were plastered with inducements to buy the latest product, read the latest scandal or attend the newest theatrical performance.

Nowhere was this more true than in the stations. After the inauguration of the first passenger train service for passengers in 1829, railway mania swept the land. Fortunes were made and lost in attempting to open up new lines: thousands of Irish labourers - refugees from poverty and famine at home - found employment building them. People of all social classes used the trains as can be seen in W P Frith's famous painting of Paddington Station, although the different classes were strictly segregated, just as they were on the new and luxurious liners that were beginning to cross the Atlantic regularly in the wake of Brunel's pioneering steamship, the Great Britain.

For many people Brunel epitomises Victorian energy and inventiveness - the positive and visible side of Victorian achievement which has to be set beside the pictures of poverty and grime. Indeed, the career of this one man can explain the growth in the British economy in the later part of the 19th Century: he repeatedly called upon mills and foundries to go beyond what they had previously thought possible and challenged other engineers to match or exceed his ambitions.

Like the medieval cathedrals, those schemes that worked are still with us. Those that didn't are forgotten, amongst them the Atmospheric Railway Project in Devon, whose pumping houses can still be seen at Totnes, Starcross and Torquay. Brunel's biggest disappointment was the huge Great Eastern, a ship so large that she proved almost impossible to launch. The company created to operate her went bankrupt and she was broken up after a life of barely twenty five years, a reminder that private capital financed all such schemes and there were losses as well as gains for shareholders. More fortunate were those entrepreneurs who made fortunes from servicing the needs of the travelling public, such as one-time newspaper boy WH Smith.

In the big cities the cab and the 'bus were the main means of getting around. Horse-drawn omnibuses (literally 'for all') were the first really democratic mode of transport. One Victorian artist went so far as to portray the prime-minister Gladstone travelling on a 'bus, although this seems unlikely to have happened.

Gladstone was more typical in other respects however. He lived into a vigorous old age. For men of means and women who survived childbirth, life expectancy was steadily increasing during the Victorian era. Pills and potions aside, medicine was the area of science that made the most spectacular advance during the nineteenth century. Again it was observation that underlay these developments. Vaccination was an invention of the 18th Century (Edward Jenner) but the reason for its success was not determined until discovery of bacteria using the improved microscope developed by Joseph Lister (1786-1869). Lister's son, also Joseph, pioneered the use of carbolic acid, the first effective antiseptic (1867). Surgeons had already found a safe way of rendering their patients unconscious during operations (chloroform). As a result many lives were saved and the realisation grew that much more could be done, if time and money were available. In time this would contribute to the case for a national health service As is still true today scientific invention forces changes in public policy by enlarging our concept of the possible...