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Lecture: The Victorian Age

The Victorian Age was one in which technologies came together into systems. Although it is often known as an era of fascinating gadgets and inventions, the true innovation was the creation of these systems, including lighting, sewage, transportation and communications.

Preservation technologies: photographs, phonographs and typewriters

I call photographs and phonographs "preservation technology", because they help preserve live performances and images of people, places and objects. But they are also reproductive technologies, like the printing press. Some historians say that their invention is on par with the invention of writing, in its recording influence on our society.

Photography had a long development. Some take it back to the camera obscura as used by Alhazen (11th century) and Leonardo da Vinci (16th century) to better visualize objects. But these were reflecting, not recording, units. In the 18th century, experiments had been done exposing various salts to light and chemicals, which would lead to the idea of film. The first photographs appear to have been taken in France in 1826, with the popularization of pictures coming with the Daguerrotype in the 1830s. As with many innovation, scores of innovators followed, which advanced the development of the device. By the 1850s, glass plates were being used to capture images for development on paper, and by the 1880s George Eastman was creating cameras the the middle class could afford.

Sicilian boys

Wilhelm von Gloeden, 'Two Seated Sicilian
Youths', about 1900

Photography had many uses - family portraits, documentation of property, anything for which a drawing or painting might not be as affordable. It was also considered an art, as photographers worked with the limitations of the technology to develop artistic images for sale. Some of the first images sold were those that catered to more prurient interests, like the image shown here. Early cameras required the sitters to be quite still for portraits, because the lens was opened manually by the photographer and a great deal of light was needed to make an impression on early plates. steroscope

A related invention of this era was the stereoscope, which provided 3-dimensional viewing, first of drawings and then photographs. In 1838 in England, Sir Charles Wheaton patented the stereoscope, then Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes re-invented the device in 1859, a side-hobby to his medical practice and time as an essayist. The Holmes stereoscope made photographs popular entertainment, with families and guests sitting around the parlor looking at double photographs they'd purchased. For some, stereoscope pictures were their first sight of foreign lands and exotic people - their view of the world.

The audio of the first recording, from 1860, was only recently recovered. Here it is:

Edison phonographIt was recorded on a device called the phonautograph, in France. Edison, in the United States, would patent the first cylinder phonograph in the 1870s. It recorded on tin foil, which wasn't very durable. Other inventors made improvements. Recordings were made on wax cylinders, which could be played maybe 30 times before one could smooth down the wax and have it recut. Edison's wax cylinder machine is shown here at right. Commercial cylinders were marketed around 1889, but the machine could also record. This feature would gradually become lost, as phonographs would be marketed only for playback of pre-recorded disks, as the medium became harder (plastic, vinyl) instead of malleable like wax.

The ability to record would not be back for ordinary consumers until the reel-to-reel recorders of the 1950s.

typewriterSeveral prototypes of typewriters had been around since the 17th century, but the first commercial product was a ball typewriter created by Danish inventor Rasmus Malling-Hansen (shown left). It had all the parts of later typewriters, including the keys, ribbon, and platten. Production died with its owner, however, and other models became popular.

SholesGliddenBy 1872, typewriters featured QWERTY keyboards, named after the first letters on the keyboard. There is a popular story that the invention of the QWERTY keyboard was to slow typists down. This may well have been true, since very quick typing jammed the keys (it still does).

The most fun typewriter was the Sholes-Glidden of 1874 (right), which sold well. I like it because it was mounted like a sewing machine, with a treadle to push the carriage return. I find it interesting that later typewriters would replace this with a manual carriage return that required you to stop typing and push the platten to the left with a handle. While I have no statistics on typing speed, and the Sholes-Glidden didn't allow the operator to see the resulting type while typing, we won't see another "automatic" carriage return until the electric typewriter, invented in the 1930s but not popular for consumers until the late 1940s.

Imperial technology

European nations (especially Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain) had created colonial empires beginning in the 16th century. During the 17th century, their governments had created monopolies so that particular companies, such as the Dutch East India Company, controlled trade in certain areas of the globe. These companies operated under government charter, and created what we call "colonialism", exploiting control of markets in raw materials from the colonies, and European exports to the colonies. The United States, as we know, was a colony that broke away, in 1776. Haiti did the same from France. But most colonies were firmly under control of the companies that founded them.

Most of the colonies in Africa and Asia were along the coast - Europeans did not control any internal tropical areas at the beginning of the 19th century. According to Headrick, there were two reasons why: "Picture of Ships" the first was topography, and the second was disease. Sailing ships required a deep draught in the water for their pointed hulls, and wind for sails. They were also made of wood. In the tropics, the rivers were shallow, there was no wind, and the wood rotted. Diseases included killers like malaria and fever, to which many local people had developed immunity. Several expeditions into Africa, like the Mungo Park expedition in 1805, had ended with everyone dead. This was why trade with Africa, South America and Asia (including India) had meant trade with coastal peoples, who obtained the goods (including slaves) from the interior of the continents.

In South America, Jesuits had discovered a palliative for malaria in the 18th century when they noted that the natives chewed on the bark of the cinchona tree. French chemists distilled the substance quinine from the cinchona bark, and it Gin and tonicwas tried as a cure for malaria, with mixed results. It took a while to realize that quinine was a prophylactic rather than a treatment; it worked if taken in advance and continually while in the tropics. In other words, it was a tonic rather than a cure.

In India, the British created quinine "tonic water", and mixed it with gin, creating the gin and tonic. This is the classic drink of the British Raj - a cocktail as technology.

Industrialization took care of the other problem, as metal steamboats were created with flat bottoms that could go up tropical rivers. They were propelled by steam power, fueled by coal, so they didn't rely on the winds and could explore, and exploit, the interior of Africa and Asia.

By the 19th century, a shift had occurred, and most company control was changing to direct governmental control. One example is the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, which occurred because of a new technology, the Enfield Rifle. This rifle was a vast improvement over earlier weapons. Instead of having to worry about powder and shot, the Enfield rifle used a paper cartridge containing both, and was conveniently breech-loading. The cartridges were greased to prevent moisture seeping in. To load the weapon, you bit off a bit of the greased paper so the powder could ignite, and popped the cartridge into the breech. Indian sepoys were instructed how to load the weapon, and many refused. The cartridges were greased with pork and beef fat. The religious beliefs of the Hindus forbade any contact with beef, and the Muslims were similarly prohibited from contact with pork. Sepoys who refused to load their weapons were stripped of their rank and dishonorably discharged. These sepoys returned home, where they created a mutiny against the British officers, who had undermined their culture in many ways. The Great Mutiny (Indian historians call it the Great Rebellion) raged in northern India, and quite a few British people, military and civilian, were killed.

After the mutiny was put down, the British government took over direct rule of India from the Company. More civil servants and their families came to India. And a segregation of British and Indian people took place that had never existed before: white-only clubs and restaurants, white-only railroad cars. Indians became second-class citizens in their own country, providing the labor for the jewel of the empire.

Cecil RhodesIn the last half of the 19th century, much British policy revolved around India. The Suez Canal (1857) was built to provide easier sea access to India, but it was owned by France and Egypt. In 1875, Disraeli purchased enough shares of the canal from Egypt's bankrupt ruler to control the Suez. In 1877, Disraeli also got Parliament to confer on Queen Victoria the title "Empress of India".

Africa, on the other hand, became the place for no-holds-barred entrepreneurship, the so-called "Scramble for Africa". Britain, France and Germany vied with each other for control. European technologies made possible not only exploration, mapping, and conquest, but also efficient exploitation of resources. African tribes often rebelled, requiring military measures. Since European governments had relatively little interest in directing armies in far-off places, local entrepreneurs often controlled national troops deployed overseas. Colonial wars became more common. Some of these wars, like the Anglo-Zulu War in 1874, were started by military leaders without government approval. The heavy field artillery proved less of an advantage in wars against natives than Europeans expected, even against people fighting with spears, but in most cases overwhelming force was ultimately effective. Railroads were built as investment opportunities, and they made money transporting goods and troops - imperial adventures made money for European investors back home. It also provided an opportunity to test new weapons. The Gatling machine gun (patent picture left) was seen as too brutal for use inside Europe, but acceptable for using against native peoples in Africa and Asia.

Partition of Africa

Interchangeable parts

Collier revolverThe Enfield Rifle was innovative in that it was breech-loading, but that was not the only innovation in firearms. Another was created by Elisha Collier in 1818. He created a "revolver" - a gun that held bullets in a revolving casing and could thus be fired repeatedly without reloading. In the US, Samuel Colt improved on the design to create a lightweight weapon on the same principle during the 1830s. By then, Eli Whitney (who had patented the cotton gin in 1794) had developed a factory system of production, where less skilled labor could be used to manufacture parts and assemble muskets. Colt would adopt this system.

But there was no demand for the weapon until the U.S. became involved in the Mexican War of expansion in 1846. As demand soared, Colt was able to build a large factory using new methods of production. The idea was for true interchangeability of parts, an old objective of Eli Whitney himself. Mass production of parts that could be assembled and replaced had been attempted before, but there had always been many parts that had to be produced by hand, using skilled labor.

The goal of interchangeable parts in weaponry had not been achieved before because the level of precision needed was too great. Machine milling to precise specifications, even for unusually shaped parts, became possible as Colt and others filed patents for competing machinery.

Colt diagram

Early versions of the machine gun (which, if you think about it, is just a big, automatic revolver) would be used, along with many Colt revolvers and advanced rifles, during the American Civil War. There is not question that war, while it may not cause the invention of more effective weaponry, certainly makes its spread and adaptation more likely.

Hygiene and medicine

Sanitation in hospitals improved by the end of the 19th century. During the Crimean War, the nurse every child learns about, Florence Nightingale, pointed out the unnecessary deaths caused by a lack of basic hygiene in military camps. Upon her return to England, she took up the cause of hospital and sanitation reform, and her Report on Rural Hygiene (1894) brought attention to conditions in the countryside. She worked with statisticians like William Farr to create scientific reports in order to convince politicians that public health issues were important: separating the sick from the well in poorhouses, providing proper medical care paid for by the government, and viewing children as a special population.

Surgical techniques were also improved during this era. New methods were taught in the surgery theatres of medical schools, where students could watcchloroformh an operation. The greatest technological advance was anesthesia. Nitrous oxide was accidentally inhaled by a student of chemistry, and was found to produce giddiness and an insensitivity to pain. Although appropriate for "light" anesthesia (such as in dentistry) it was mostly used at parties by elites (yet another Victorian vice to overcome inhibitions caused by social repression ). But the development of ether made internal surgery possible. Ether put the patient deeply to sleep, so work in the abdominal cavity could take place without pain. It was a forgiving substance: a bit too little or a bit too much did no harm. But ether smelled terrible, and was highly flammable. The ultimate innovation was chloroform. It also put the patient deeply to sleep, but its smell was tolerable and it was not flammable. It was, however, difficult to determine the correct dosage, which led to anesthetics being a medical specialty. The use of chloroform was popularized by Queen Victoria, who for her eighth child wanted something to help her along. It was administered to her by the same Dr. John Snow who had helped solve the cholera mystery.

Surgeries were also made safer by new antiseptic procedures, like those introduced by Joseph Lister to spray the open body cavity with antiseptic during surgery. Doctors still operated in street clothes (I think of this a lot watching people in scrubs going out to lunch), and hand washing was difficult to implement since many did not see a reason for it. The 1850s were a turning point, with the development of basic ideas of germ theory in Germany and in France with Louis Pasteur, whose pasteurization process helped the beverage industry. The new ideas about germs, which were invisible, frightened people - there was much concern about catching diseases from other people and inanimate objects. By 1863, chemist Louis Pasteur's research showed that deaths of "childbirth fever" were related to the streptococcus microbe, being transferred from one mother to another on the hands of practitioners. His work was ridiculed, as was his insistence that instruments be sterilized and hands scrubbed before touching a patient. In 1869 he would prove the connection in the maternity wards at the Hotel Dieu, but even then, there was confusion between normal strains of strep found in all women's vaginas, and those considered infective and deadly.

electricity machine"Alternative" cures were popular during this time, and many depended on people's positive belief that technology could solve health problems. Electricity could be used to shock the whole patient or parts of the body, which could shift symptoms. One of the most popular uses of electricity was for what we could call a vibrator, used to bring women to orgasm (hysterical paroxysm) to cure hysteria. Hysteria was a disorder of the womb, resulting in anxiety and behavioral disturbances (likely a result of sexual and social repression). The treatments began in the 1880s, and no patent for household use was issued until 1902, so the vibrators were medical devices to be used in the doctor's office. Other doctors performed female circumcision to prevent sexual pleasure, which was also thought to cure hysteria. Other "cures" included patent medicines, which are seriously maligned these days. Yes, they contained alcohol, and opiates, and cocaine. Yes, they caused addiction, and were used to drug crying children to sleep. But even today, we use derivatives of opium (morphine, Vicodin, Oxycontin) and cocaine (lidocaine, xylocaine) because they work. Alcohol was a perfectly serviceable cough suppressant in cough syrups until removed due to the current fear of alcoholism.


Sewage and water systems laid a foundation for what we now call infrastructure. Infrastructure is the technology of physical structures that supports a city or area. The term was first used in Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, though not very often. Systems and networks of roads, railroads, water pipes, telegraphs, and such were just being seen to be infrastructure. One of the most important of these elements was lighting.

Street lighting had been around since the 17th century in the major cities of Europe. They were financed by the increasingly centralized governments to fight crime and other unacceptable urban activity. Ironically, people stayed out later when the streets were lit, so the goal may not have been achieved. In areas where there were no public street lights, the methods went back to the 16th century: people were asked to hang a lighted lamp outside their doors at night. Gas lighting was developed in London at the beginning of the 19th century, using gas from a liquid distilled from coal. Other countries used oil-gas or kerosene.

In the 1870s and 80s, electric light (including arc lights and incandescents) began to appear in major cities. Incandescent lamps could be operated in a series, with isolation transformers to continue the circuit if a single lamp blew out. By 1885, incandescent lamps had come down in price enough that the middle class could have their homes wired for lighting. In 1882, Thomas Edison had created the first steam-powered electricity generation station in London , for the street lighting, and he built another in New York. Both used direct current, so the generators had to be close to the lamps, making big cities lightable but not smaller places and rural areas.

The biggest technological battle of the age was between Edison and Nikola Tesla, who developed alternating current at about the same time. Edison was an extremely good businessman and used the U.S. patent system extensively to gain monopolies for his inventions. He dismissed Tesla's idea of alternating current, which turned out in the long run to be the most efficient way of providing electrical power over long distances. (Sir Joseph Swann in England, by the way, invented the incandescent light bulb at the same time as Edison.)

My favorite invention of all time has to be the flush toilet. In Roman times, the houses of wealthy people had running water under a seat with a hole, to carry the waste away. But for the most part, running water to carry away waste was pretty rare during all the eras we've studied. The trick was usually to be able to do your business inside, but have the waste go outside. This could mean "garderobes" in the walls of castles (closets with a hole in a seat that carried the waste down a chute into a pit) or chamber pots in bedrooms and closets that could be emptied later. In 1596, James Harrington invented a valve pipe toilet (below left), which he installed for Queen Elizabeth I, but it was smelly and noisy. During the 18th century, Alexander Cummings invented the s-shaped disposal pipe that kept out odors, and inventor John Brahma created the flap to keep toilets from freezing in winter. But it wasn't until the 1880s that the flush toilet became popular. Thomas Crapper (yes, I know) invented the ballcock and therefore the modern flush toilet, although several inventors before him had made improvements on the 18th century models. As with most inventions, Crapper gets the credit because his product dominated the marketplace, and he was good at marketing (below right).

Harington toilet Crapper toilet
Harington's toilet, 1596, from 'A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax Ad for Crapper's toilet, 1880s

I hesitated to put railroads and canals into the infrastructure section, but it is warranted even though they began as private enterprises funded through private investment. The first canals were funded by companies trying to connect ports with factories. Like imperialist ventures, canal investments could be profitable or be a total bust - it was sometimes impossible to tell until the canal was built. Many never got past the planning stages. In the 1830s, for example, Louis Galabert proposed the Canal Pyrenees, to connect the Canal du Midi (build under royal supervision in the 17th century) to the Atlantic.

Suez dredgerThe Suez Canal, though not built in Europe, affected European trade. It took 15 years to build. It was first proposed in 1854 by French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who contracted with the  viceroy to form a company to build the canal. Britain objected, since France would get the benefit of the canal, but would later buy an interest in it. By directly linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, it made it possible for ships to sail from Europe to India and Asia without going around Africa. The pilot study estimated that 2,613 million cubic feet of earth would have to be moved, and 2,013 million cubic feet dredged from water. Egyptian workers were drafted and were poorly paid, but the technology was extraordinary (the huge steam dredger is shown at right, although when the canal began it was all done with Egyptian labor and shovels). The canal was opened in 1870. It was not deep enough or wide enough, and many ships were grounded in the canal and had to be rescued, but the time saved from not rounding Africa was worth it. The British took over Egypt, partly to prevent the canal falling into the hands of unfriendly rebels, so after 1882 they controlled the canal.

Interestingly, the opening of the canal caused the beginning of a unidirectional migration of Red Sea animals and plants into the Mediterranean. They call this the "Lessepsian migration" after Lesseps. And of course, it caused increased imperialism, or at least seemed to increase its speed.

And no increase in speed was as important as the railroad. Railroads had been around for years, connecting a single mine to a single port, for example. That meant that in both Europe and the U.S., there was no single standard for tracks or engines. That changed as governments became involved, and schemes were created to hook up existing railways and create new ones. Here, the United States plays a major role. The completion of the Transcontinental railroad in 1869, particularly when combined with the opening of the Suez Canal, meant that products and people really could travel around the globe. It is no coincidence that Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days was published in 1873. In that book, Englishman Phileas Fogg is challenged to travel around the world in 80 days, which he does despite delays and various adventures. His main transport was steamships and railroads, the symbols of the age, and correspondence throughout the journey took place using telegraph.

The Telephone

"Can you hear me now?" No, that's not just a contemporary phrase - it was often used with the new telephones. I won't retell the story of Alexander Graham Bell (you can find it in the children's section of any library). candlestick phoneFirst demonstrated in 1876, the telephone became popular for making possible two things: the transmitting of voice (instead of just dots and dashes) over wire, and the infrastructure that made it possible for phones to be installed in homes as well as public locations. The telephone exchange, as it was called by Bell and others, was invented by Tivadar Puskás, a Hungarian engineer who worked for Thomas Edison. The first exchange was cobbled together in New Haven, Connecticut, and worked on a subscription service. People installed phones in their homes and paid $1.50 a month to be able to make calls through the switchboard, using an operator.

Because they were modeled on telegraph exchanges, the use of telephones at first was fairly limited. People would lease a pair of telephones (one for home, one for office) and pay for the wire to be laid between them. The first phones used only one wire, just like the telegraph, so with early phones you both spoke into and listened using the same piece. Edison's lab created the separate microphone, allowing for the 19th century phone we see in the movies, the candlestick phone. Early models have no dial, because an operator answered when you lifted the earpiece off the switchhook.

The leading country for number of telephones per capita at the end of the 19th century was not the U.S. - it was Sweden. New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland had the most extensive systems in the world.


Not everyone greeted the phone with enthusiasm, however. Just like today, their infrastructure destroyed the landscape. Telephone poles and wiring everywhere was not attractive. Along with home electric wiring, it brought fear of the impact on health, just like with today's cell towers. Sand filters that make water cleaner were progress for everyone - private telephones that required wires and poles disrupting everyone's view was quite another.

And for each new invention, something was lost. With an increase in communications by wire came an increase in the loss of privacy. With new transportation, isolation became less possible. New weaponry was seen at the time as decreasing military skill and relying on machinery to kill - there was particular disapproval at the use of mechanical weapons against African spears. Electrical wiring and city lighting brought a different kind of light, and changed habits of work and play. The bright light of electricity, compared to candle light and gaslight, illuminated close work after dark. This made possible shifts of work covering 24 hours, and night shifts for detailed labor. The bright light at night also changed melatonin production in the body, causing difficulties with ordinary sleep cycles and weakening people's physical systems. Recording devices are often accused of causing social isolation (why go to a concert when you can listen at home?) and losses of memory, and typewriters would cause a decline in handwritten communications.

Reading for discussion

Our reading for this week is a primary source: an excerpt from Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). In this story, the narrator went to sleep in 1887, and has awakened in the year 2000. The daughter of his host is inviting him to listen to music, which he would naturally presume would need to be played or sung by her. Note how the music technology works in the year 2000.


Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics, Volume 15, edited by Franklin Henry Martin, 1912


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.