Three Wonders of Victorian Technology

I gave this 35-minute talk to the Long Nineteenth Century group last week. Its full title is Three Wonders of Victorian Technology, or how a little communication, education, and sanitation goes a long way. In it I discuss the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, the Magic Lantern, and the flush toilet. Enjoy!

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Victorian high tech: the pneumatic railway

I was tracing one of my character’s walks through Holborn, using Google street view and walking my little man along, when I noticed the street name changed to “Holborn Viaduct” and then I came upon structures that looked Victorian and bridge-like. Turned out I was on top of this:

Photo by Matt Brown, Wikipedia

So I looked it up. There wasn’t much at the Wikipedia page, but I found much more at this engineering site. According to this:

Holborn Viaduct is 427m long and 24.4m wide, and is a complex structure mainly of masonry. It incorporated subways for a sewer, a gas main, telegraph wires, the pneumatic despatch railway used by Royal Mail and an Edison electric power station.

What the heck is a “pneumatic despatch railway”? So I went down that rabbit hole for an afternoon.

Way back in 2013 the New Statesman published an article about what they call the “Victorian hyperloop”, a pneumatic railway for the mail in London.

It was a fascinating technology, essentially an underground tube with cars that carried the mail across town. It was tested above ground at Battersea.

The first one was inaugurated at Holborn (did it go through the viaduct? no, it went under it, but not till 1865, two years too late for my character).

People could fit in it.

And they experienced “no ill effect”.

Illustrated London News, 7 February 1863 p. 135.

It was so exciting that it appeared on a cigarette card:

A human-sized line was run from Crystal Palace in Sydenham so people could try it and see how it worked.

It worked very well. You put your mail (or busybody investor) into the car, and sealed up the end, forming a vacuum. One direction pushed, the other sucked. The first section was supposed to be a straight shot from the Euston Station packages depot to Holborn, but the Duke of Bedford didn’t want the digging, so it had to have a turn. They ran another from the General Post Office. Telegraph wires ran alongside for signalling. Some reports said it got up to 60 miles per hour; other estimates were more modest. Either way it got the mail there in minutes, and avoided the streets above, which were overcrowded with unregulated traffic, including carts, horses, pedestrians, cabs, etc.

Illustrated London News, 28 February 1863

There were approvals for more branches, but not enough money. A few technical problems, yes, and it didn’t save as much time as hoped, but the main problem was cash.

The New Statesman was using the pneumatic railway (also known as an “atmospheric railway”) to tease Elon Musk, and rightly so. This thing was planned to run all over London, underground. Infrastructure was part of the plan. Even though it ran out of money, and was left derelict, pneumatic tubes for papers would become part of businesses and banks (the bank up the street has one, and I remember the thrill of using one at the drive-through bank when I was a child).

I think it’s a shame that the reporting of new hyperloops is so ahistorical. Even this criticism of Virgin Hyperloop only cites the TGV and a similar Chinese line from seventeen years ago. I would have loved to know about this Victorian model before.

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St Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

O! The Lake District

In 1992, I went to the Lake District and was so unimpressed with the crowds of people and nowhere to park that I left within a few hours.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant tour guide Jenny took me to the Lake District, and I finally saw why everyone loves it so. The whole place looks like beautiful pictures from one of those calendars you can’t throw away when the year is over.

In addition to driving by Lake Windemere, so I could see a big lake, we went up to Tarn Hows. The drive was lovely, the lake (tarn) was lovely, so one must quote Wordsworth (I suspect Wordsworth came here thinking, “I must quote Wordsworth. Wait – that’s me!”). From Home at Grasmere:

…Thou art pleased, Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake, Its one green island and its winding shores; The multitude of little rocky hills, Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone Clustered like stars some few, but single most, And lurking dimly in their shy retreats, Or glancing at each other cheerful looks Like separated stars with clouds between.

Tarn Haws

The Lake District seems small, like nature in human size, in the same way that Renaissance churches are human-sized. The Alps are like Gothic cathedrals, overwhelming in size and majesty. Smaller is friendlier.

Jenny says the area even smells different, and I was fascinated by the light, that always seems to come through lacy trees. The feathery trees make the woodland seem friendly too, not dark like a forest. The light filters through green everywhere.

So I took pictures, but looking at them later I was very unhappy with them. While it seems that the technology of a photograph is best to capture “reality”, the reality may be more than what is seen in two dimensions. Like Durham, the Lake District really is best portrayed in art, not because it’s more precise, but because it’s more accurate in terms of how it seems to be there. So we need people like Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, A View in the Lake District (1797-8)

My photo seems to capture far less of what I experienced as a viewer than does Turner’s painting, even though he wasn’t painting the same location. This seems ridiculous. Photography is supposed to capture “reality”, isn’t it?

But I have taught my students that it isn’t so — that every photograph is an interpretation of reality. We get into this idea with the photography of Jacob Riis and Dorothea Lange. These photographers did capture the “real” – their subjects are real people in real situations. But both photographers framed their shots a certain way, and often placed their subjects carefully. Both had a goal to create feeling in the viewer, a feeling of pity that might lead to action.

Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, New York City (1890)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936)

Painters also try to evoke emotion. For this reason, I have never been able to discern why people believed that the coming of photography would displace painting, as if the purpose of both was simply to record reality. Painting and photography are both interpretive.

But a painting is not a photograph. As Paul Emsley said about his portraits of Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge:

“There is a balance of realism and going beyond to something more mysterious.”

So painting seems to add something more. The purpose of the work is not mere representation (whether before or after the advent of photography). There must be value added. Some might say that landscape painting is more evocative than a photograph because it might capture how it feels to be in a place. Perhaps, but how could Turner and I both feel the same thing? I bring different expectations and a different appreciation for different reasons.

Turner’s work was much appreciated by John Ruskin, another Lake admirer. Unfortunately, since I do not like John Ruskin, I had trouble discovering whether he would agree with me about why a painting might be better than a photo (I don’t think he likes me either). In Modern Painters (1867), Ruskin wrote of the need to paint accurately, emphasizing that artists should paint with scientific precision the objects of nature. But Turner’s work doesn’t seem that precise — it’s more atmospheric. [Which means I do not understand what Ruskin means, nor whether he could help me understand the role of the painter and why my photos just don’t seem to reflect the full reality. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not a good photographer, and that a professional is needed to visually interpret my experience.]

But I do like the pre-Raphaelites, even if they were inspired by Ruskin. So we went to Jesus Church at Troutbeck. I had forgotten that was why were were there (I was just enjoying the scenery). But as I walked up to the east window, I recognized Jane Morris. Wife of William Morris and muse to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, she has a distinctive look. The window was designed by Edward Burne-Jones with help from friends William Morris and Ford Madox Brown, in 1873.

Bourne-Jones/Morris window, Jesus Church, Troutbeck

Jane Morris in the east window, Jesus Church, Troutbeck

The pre-Raphaelites are fun because their aesthetic went back in time as well as forward, as they created a fantasy Middle Ages, a neo-Gothic vision combined with naturalistic detail, or stylized natural forms (as Morris liked to do). Their work is vivid, colorful, interesting.

As it happens, I am just as interested in what the pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against: mechanization and industrialization. We also visited Stott Bobbin Mill and took a tour. It’s the last Bobbin Mill still standing of the many that used to produce thread spools for cotton-spinning machines, households, loom shuttles, and more (even mallet heads and tool handles during the war). Industrial museums are fun because you can hear the machines (as I did last year in Bletchley Park).

So the Lake District has much to offer, which is no doubt why there were so many people there. Even in September there were plenty of walkers and families everywhere we went. But it seems that you only need to walk a little way to be on your own in the landscape. I expect that’s what both Turner and Ruskin liked about it.

More photos…

Why journalists write such good history books

In an only slightly different life, I would have been a journalist. As a significantly younger person, I followed Watergate closely, reading All The President’s Men (as well as Haldeman’s The Ends of Power), and attending a lecture by John Dean given at my college. I saved all the Newsweek articles on Patty Hearst, and all my newspaper clippings of the 1975 World Series, in a laundry basket. I became copy editor and then editor of my high school newspaper, writing articles and proofing galleys and protesting the truancy laws. I majored in English at UCLA.

I switched to History due to an odd series of events involving a high school counselor who didn’t tell me when the AP English test was offered, a fascination with the musical 1776, and a brilliant course I took with historian Joyce Appleby. I never took a journalism class after high school, but instead trained as a historian. My degrees are in History, and my certificates are in Education.

For the past decade or so, I’ve studied the evolution of the web as a teaching tool, and in particular online pedagogy. I’ve experienced the typewriter, the internet, the web, as customer and creator. I’ve used rotary dial phones, dial-up modems, and cell phones. Even as I experienced digital history unfolding (or perhaps because I experienced it), I have “reported” my findings rather than studying the phenomena as a historian. After years of being the person in the room saying “but this has all happened before”, I have recently returned to the study of history as my primary task. And yet, the history books I most enjoy reading now are not written by historians. They’re written by journalists.

Most of these works are about the history of technology, which was my specialty in grad school (although I studied medieval, not modern, technology). Tom Standage (The Guardian, The Economist) published his brilliant The Victorian Internet in 1998, the same year I began teaching online. The book became a reference for me, a way to connect the present (in which I was frantically operating) with the past I understood. In 2003, a student gave me a copy of Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes (New York Times), about Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse. It was another reminder that so many things (commercial competition, technological advancement, bloody-minded geniuses) are not new. Atlantic and NY Times writer Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) was a delight, part of a body of his work that supported my gut instinct that the web was making us stupid and that our dependency on computers had a serious dark side (that was the same year that saw the rise of MOOCs).

Steven Johnson (Wired, NY Times) wrote The Ghost Map, a 2006 book so clear and brilliant in its discussion of the cholera epidemic in London that I assigned both the book and his TED talk to students.

Few of these people have history degrees. Johnson’s are in semiotics and English lit. Carr, also literature. Standage has a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford. Interestingly for those looking at women writers, Jonnes is the only one with a PhD in history, obtained after she was a published writer for the New York Times.

They don’t pretend to be historians. Standage notes his specialty is “the use of historical analogy in science, technology and business writing”. Johnson just calls himself a writer, and Wikipedia says the same about Carr.  Jonnes uses no noun to describe herself despite her degree.

With such a trend in evidence, it didn’t surprise me to read in Bloomberg Businessweek that New York Times reporter Cade Metz is writing a history of artificial intelligence.

Normally I’m quite the snob about non-historians doing history. For example, we have a number of departments at the college who offer classes with the word “history” in the title, but are taught by language or music instructors. The individuals teaching them are quite wonderful, but they aren’t doing history. They’re teaching cultural heritage, typically without reference to historical methodology. Their technique is usually narrative, rather than the development of a thesis to be proven with evidence. Similarly, the profusion of “history” days and months for groups of subcultures (women, African Americans, etc.) are all heritage-based, although they claim to be doing history in order to show they are on the right side of history, which is another thing entirely.

Such storytelling, however uncomfortable I may be with it as a historian, has always been important to human beings. It has become increasingly significant in recent years, as competing narratives are created to defend particular points of view. To the agggrieved, for example, all of human history may be a story of grievances. Historians study historiography, the “schools” of history formed by different viewpoints (such as Marxist history, or the Annales school, or the New Left). Historians tend to recognize these varying perspectives, though not always. Competing perspectives are inherent in the discipline. They’re a feature, not a bug. Historians know there is no “one” history, but rather histories told for varied reasons. That’s why historical evidence is so important — it is needed to support ones perspective, to ground it in fact.

Neither historian nor journalist, English prof Marshall McLuhan provided the foundation for many of the works mentioned here in his The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

So what do journalists and historians have in common? Both observe the world carefully, and note patterns. Both access the past for context. Both rely on sources, tell stories, create narrative, highlight key people and events. But they divide on method. A journalist may consult only a few sources, or a very broad selection of sources, and need not engage in exhaustive research among scholarly articles or primary documents. They may rely on scholars’ interpretations, since they themselves are not engaging in scholarship. Journalists may use more literary techniques to draw the reader in, to make clever connections. (These techniques have actually changed the way history is written by historians, as publishers now seek a broader audience for history books in an age where fewer people purchase books at all.)

Most importantly, journalists need not provide a new perspective beyond the telling of an interesting story. The originality lies in the creative telling of a tale, rather than in the development of an argument that must be proven with facts. Perhaps this is why the articles on Patty Hearst did not lead me to research the Hearst family, or terrorism, or cults. I never got into the history of baseball. I watched Watergate happening but did not feel an urge to research previous presidential scandals, or violations of the constitution, or the composition of the White House staff. The stories were complete in themselves.

So when a journalist turns a hand to history, it has the potential to be more lively, and more immediate. Liberties are taken (almost into “creative non-fiction”) with personalities, like those of Tesla or John Snow. “Bringing history alive” (a phrase that makes me cringe, with its implication of imposed drama) need not involve engaging in historical scholarship, but it does create the all-important analogies that Tom Standage mentions. These books bring facts to light, and connections between past and present. Without the work of writers like Standage and Johnson, it is unlikely I would have found the connections between what I was doing with my teaching, and what others have done in the past. Even if I discovered these connections while defending history in the various MOOCs in which I was enrolled, I might not have realized my own potential to write about them.

Skilled journalists make the reader feel engaged in the story, even if their thesis is nothing more than, “look at this cool series of events that happened”. Because they live in our time, their reasons for looking into the past are the same as those of historians: to find insights about ourselves in the present. With such similar goals, it isn’t surprising that so many good books featuring history are written by journalists.

Technology isolating people


Retrieved from The Public Domain Review. They have similar wonderful items here.

Drawing by Radio

First in what I hope will be a series on distance education before 1990.


Originally from Dr Chris Mullen’s website, this is undated. WIBO was in Indiana from 1927 to 1933, broadcasting for Chicago, when it was renamed, so this could be quite early.

[Update: And it was. After contacting Dr Mullen, who told me it was probably a feature from Popular Mechanics (which later became the foundation of an artwork by one of his colleagues), I found it in Google Books. I’m always telling my students citation is important: Popular Mechanics, December 1932, p. 918.]