During the long reign of Queen Victoria between 1837 and 1901, the populations of British towns and cities began bursting at the seams, as people from the countryside came to urban industrial hubs in search of work. As a result, across Britain and the rest of the world, life was transformed by new ideas about politics, science and society.
The spread of education and affluence during the Victorian era encouraged innovation and experimentation, witnessing developments in areas such as transportation, communication and medicine. In fact, many of the objects we use in daily life today are the result of ingenious Victorian innovation.
1. Electric lighting
Until the mid-19th century, gas lighting was increasingly popular in middle class homes. However, using gas was not ideal due to the unfortunate downsides of hazardous fumes, blackened walls and risk of the odd explosion.
While electric street lamps appeared in the 1870s, the solution to electric domestic lighting came with the invention of the incandescent electric bulb by American inventor Thomas Edison in 1879.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were quick to adopt these innovations in their homes, particularly Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where early light bulbs from the Swan and Edison company were used. It would not be until the 1930s that most people could afford the transition to electric light in their homes.
2. The telephone
Also at Osborne, telecommunication wires were installed via submarine cable in 1852, allowing the first electronic message to cross the Atlantic between Queen Victoria and the American president, James Buchanan, on 16 July 1858.
By 1876, while studying hearing impairments, Alexander Graham Bell had created an electric telephone. The first successful transmission of clear speech by Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, was made on 10 March 1876. Bell asked, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” and Watson heard.
A year later, Bell patented the invention under the Bell Telephone Company.
3. The underground railway
The world’s first ever underground railway opened in London between Paddington and Farringdon in 1863. The underground used gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives and soon grew as part of a plan for an underground ‘inner circle’ connecting London’s main-line stations.
4. The internal combustion engine
In 1859, the first internal combustion engine was invented by French engineer Etienne Lenoir. This gasoline engine featured an ignition system and could run continuously. The engine replaced animal and human power, saving time and energy, which had a massive impact on British industry.
It was not long until German inventor Nicklaus Otto developed the first four-stroke engine in 1876, dependent upon using kerosene, diesel and petrol, also discoveries of the Victorian era, in place of coal. Karl Benz then invented the world’s first car using Otto’s design.
5. The bicycle
The Penny Farthing was the first bicycle to be invented. James Starley created a bike in 1859 that featured a massive front wheel (resembling a penny) and a minuscule back wheel (resembling the smaller farthing). It was difficult to ride, especially as it did not have brakes.
The design was streamlined in 1885, when John Kemp Starley created a bicycle with two smaller wheels of the same size, connected and driven by a chain.
6. Moving pictures
The origins of motion pictures as we know them today were first brought to Victorian screens in 1895 by the Lumière brothers. French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented a portable motion-picture camera that also included a film processing unit and a projector. They called it the Cinématographe.
In 1895, Lumiere and his brother were first to demonstrate photographic moving pictures projected onto a screen for a paying audience, who saw 10, 50-second films.
7. The x-ray
German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen was testing cathode rays in a lab in 1895, wanting to see whether the rays could pass through a glass, when he noticed a glow coming from a nearby screen coated in chemicals.
He tested an X-ray photograph that showed his wife’s wedding ring and her bones, discovering the rays could penetrate human flesh. Röntgen realised the X-ray could be used to help diagnose injuries or illness without surgery, revolutionising modern medicine.
Up until the mid-1800s, surgeons could not offer patients much more than opium, alcohol or something to bite on to deal with the agony of surgery.
On October 16, 1846, dentist William Morton used sulphuric ether to anaesthetise a man before removing a vascular tumour from his neck. Satisfied the ether had worked to control the pain, Morton began buying up the local supply and using it on his dental patients.
While now painless, surgical theatres were bloody and dirty places and almost half of patients died after surgery from infection. Surgeon Joseph Lister had been inspired by Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century microbiologist who argued there were hidden germs responsible for illness.
Lister insisted that medical staff wash their hands between treating patients and began disinfecting his instruments and bandages with carbolic acid. He soon saw a decrease in post-op deaths and the adoption of his methods across the world revolutionised surgery.
10. A prevention for malaria
Originally derived from the bark of the Cinchona tree, quinine fits between the DNA strands of some cells and prevents cells affected by malaria from replicating.
Quinine effectively warded off malaria for British colonists in Africa, but it tasted horrible. Therefore, travellers mixed quinine with gin to hide the taste, unwittingly also inventing the gin and tonic, developed for commercial use in 1870 by Schweppes.