Technology in the Victorian Era

So a couple of months ago I sat in on my son’s 5th grade Science class. They were watching a documentary on the Apollo space program, called In the Shadow of the Moon. It occurred to me as I watched that I was the only one in the room who was alive during the first moon landing–even the teacher wasn’t born until after the Apollo program had ended. Whether it’s a wholly accurate memory or not, I remember sitting in the dining room while my mother cooked, watching the moon landing on our tiny black and white TV.

One of the astronauts in the program said that his father was born around the time of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and the astronaut’s son was four when the astronaut went to the moon. The astronaut’s father could not even imagine a time when a man could fly to the moon, yet to the son, it was inconceivable that it would not be possible to fly to the moon.

When I mentioned these musings on Facebook, it led to a rousing comment thread, discussing all the technological innovations that have happened in our own lifetimes, or those of our parents. Naturally, since I am immersed in editing my Victorian era WIP, I thought back to that period.

The Victorian era was one of the most sustained and prolific periods for technological and scientific advancement in history. These advancements created significant chances in society, giving rise to the middle class and a new type of wealth.

It saw the rise of the railroad and the improvement of the steamship. The first steam-assisted crossing of the Atlantic took place in 1819, before Victoria, and took 633 hours (just over 26 days). By 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, it took only 5 days to cross. Likewise, the railway era started before Victoria’s reign, in 1825, but by 1900, trains ran regularly, and with complete safety, at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. The first lavatories appeared on trains in the 1860s, the first sleeping cars were introduced in 1873, and dining cars came into use from 1879. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml#three).

The Victorian era also saw these inventions that we take for granted today:

Photograph (1838)
Pedal bicycle (1839)
Postage stamp (1840)
Christmas card (1843
Rubber tires (1845)
Tarmac (1845) and concrete (1849)
Sewing machine (1846)
Gasoline/petrol (1850) and oil (1859)
Flushing toilet (1852)
Steel (1854)
Safety match (1855)
The first underground railway opened in London (1863)
Typewriter (1873)
Chocolate Easter eggs (hurray!) (1875)
Telephone (1876)
First recording of human voice (1877)
Electric street lamps (1878)
Electric light bulb, for home use (1879) (the first electric light bulb was patented in 1875)
Gramophone (1887)
The Kodak box camera (1888)
Comic book (1890)

Cinematograph (1894)
X-ray (1895)
Radio (1895)

(Source: http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/homework/victorians/inventiotimeline.html)

The Victorian period saw the serialization of novels in magazines, which made them more accessible to the public. This is unrelated to technology, but just to give you an idea of the breadth of the Victorian literary world, some lists:

Victorian novelists, in no particular order, included Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), William Thackeray (1811–1863), Emily Bronte (1818-1848), Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855),  Anne Bronte (1820-1849), George Eliot (1819-1880), Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), Mark Twain (1835-1910), Henry James (1843-1916), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), and so many others I’d be here all day if I listed them all.  The era also produced poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Robert Browning (1812-1889), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), A.E. Housman (1859-1936), and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Playwrights included George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). There is a more comprehensive list and some other great stuff at A Literary Odyssey.

Anyway, all of this change is why I set my writing in the period. The dramatic possibilities are endless.

Now I think I’ll go pull one of my Elizabeth Gaskell novels off the shelf, and settle in with a cup of tea.

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