Nothing Left to Invent: Victorian visions of the future

In 1898 one correspondent to Cassell’s Saturday Journal felt able to write “We seem to be so up‑to‑date nowadays that I don’t see that there is really much else to be invented.”

And who could have argued with them? A surfeit of wonders, `latest improvements’, and `startling developments’ had brought a nation to expect a new advance on an almost daily basis. “…the times in which we live may well be called the `age of invention’”, reported one magazine. “Never before, it would seem, have men so ardently studied the secrets of nature, and turned the knowledge thus acquired to practical account. We have become so accustomed to hearing of new inventions that nowadays they hardly surprise us.”

At the end of the 19th century the mass media were filled with stories (and speculation) about flight, wireless telegraphy, X-Rays, radium, and the application of electricity to every aspect of modern life.  As presented in the mass-circulation magazines of the period, the Enlightenment’s hopes of achieving mastery over nature were finally being realised

In contrast to any fin de siecle  intellectual pessimism perhaps the greatest power of technology in the popular media was in the hope that it created. The language of hope contained the simple promise that the future would be better, and it should not be thought that this was a cynical, idle promise. One had only to look at the advances in technology made in the recent past, as the magazines took great pleasure in recording, to have hopes that similar advances were in store. A history of inexorable progress and a record of current triumphs gave technology impeccable credentials as a guarantor of better times to come.

We might dismiss this belief in Progress as blind faith, but the late‑Victorians had every reason to look forward to the new century. It was not so much that there were better times to come, but that they were inevitable. This vision came from layman and expert alike. Richard Kerr, FGS, FRAS, in Cassell’s Magazine, for example, concluded his article on wireless telegraphy contemplating the future:

In all this we have a wonderful instance of the power of the human mind over some of the hidden forms of energy that abound in Nature.

In fifty years time still greater things may be achieved. The mind is progressive, always expanding and being amplified, and does it not seem to indicate that it will continue to do so throughout eternity…

Progress is a marriage of the past with the future. If by its association with progress technology drew its authority and credibility by an appeal to the past, then it gained its seductive power from visions of the future. Cassell’s Saturday Journal, for example, linked past and future in its article on `Radium and its discoverers’.

The last few years have been rich in marvels, of which the x‑rays and wireless telegraphy are not the least. Remembering these things one would need a bold imagination to predict the scientific developments of the near future.

But predicting the future was the stuff of popular journalism and was a pastime commonly indulged in late-Victorian magazines, particularly the weeklies. Guided by a belief in progress and extrapolating from the past, what a wonderful picture they painted of times to come, ever onward and ever hopeful. Future generations, readers were told, would be able to take an aeroplane to the moon, cross the Atlantic in three days, travel in wagons along pneumatic tubes or on aerial railways, send pictures by telegraphy, make gold, eat pills as food, keep hearts beating with electricity, kill pain with anaesthetics, make the deaf hear, the blind see.

It is worth taking a closer look at these visions of the future, for in the common conflation of `will be’ with `ought to be’ they reveal the desires and fears of the age. “Prediction is in the air”, said Cassell’s Magazine.

 Men of science, above all others, have recently shown a disposition to assume the prophetic mantle. One informs us that man is becoming a toothless, toeless biped, all cerebellum, another that the microbe is the true sovereign of the world and will ultimately transform man into a new creature, another confidently asserts that we shall yet send telephonic messages to the planet Mars or see what is going on in Australia without leaving London, and so on ad infinitum.

In Tit‑Bits it was compulsory education that would lead the majority of the country to `seek brain rather than muscle work’, but it was technology that would enable this to happen

For a hundred years hence will not all labour be performed automatically or by machinery of some description?

Progress would be nothing less than exponential. In “Britain a hundred years hence: a peep into 1997” it proclaimed:

If the world lasts, far more wonderful changes and improvements will be effected in the coming than in the last century, for inventions, knowledge, and progress breed inventions, knowledge and progress.

In the last twenty years the `germ’ had been found for cholera, hydrophobia, tuberculosis, diptheria, anthrax and a host of other diseases which will “under really scientific hygiene, be utterly crushed out of existence”. With the perfection of surgery “death from ordinary injury will barely be possible”.

            Pearson’s Weekly, meanwhile, decided to devote a full page to see “How London will look in 1998”. Everything is run by electricity; nobody walks but transport is by bikes, cars, trams, airships, even roller skates; shopping is done over the telephone and there are telephones on every corner. Great and clever as we think ourselves”, it remarked, “what we have achieved in this century is but the shadow of the substance of the next”.

London 1998 for CMH exam

Note the emphasis on speed. Even the pedestrians are on roller skates. The future was to be faster.

            Working from an assumption about the inevitability of progress, for these Victorians the future was simply a magnification of the present – new technologies, but old social structures. For all the mechanical wizardry it was still a patriarchal world of upstairs-downstairs. They may have seen the coming age of the motor car, but there was little suggestion of the extent to which it would shape our lives, landscapes and cultures. They might have been able to envisage worldwide telegraphy, electrical brains and mechanical filing systems, but they had no conception at all of what life would be like with the internet. In short, by seeing the future simply as bigger, bolder, faster and brighter what they missed was the quality of change

            We need to understand science as part of culture if we wish to understand the quality of change that science and technology bring. Victorian visions of progress saw a future that was only quantitatively different from the present. Likewise, we may be able to “see” into the future, examine various indicators, extrapolate from current figures, trace out trends, but this will only show us ourselves writ large, missing the qualitative differences that ultimately affect our lives the most. It tells us little about what life will be like, the meanings we will give to things, the cultures that we will inhabit. When we try to consider the quality of life, the experience of the future, I can only predict that it will be nothing like we have ever imagined.

Note: This is an edited version of a paper I gave to the BAAS festival of science at the University of Leicester, 2002. The material used (together with much more) can be found in my book Media Science Before the Great War (1996)




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