The Optimism of the Victorians
In the decades after World War II, America, and to a certain extent the UK and several other Western European countries, developed a very strong positive attitude towards technological innovations and the future. This optimism can be seen in everything from the “space age” mid-century styles to the popularity of the microwave. This period, full of idealistic inventiveness, seemed like a brand new and exciting thing- however, in the late 19th century, those stuffy Victorians had their own explosion of technological optimism.
The Victorians weren’t so stuffy when it came to proclaiming their mastery of science and the natural world. This book, Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century, written in 1886 by Robert Routledge, is an excellent example of this mindset- though it is far from being the only one. A huge number of books that boasted of the technological achievements of Modern Man were published in the period between about 1870 and 1910, and many of them were rife with illustrations of wondrous inventions.
This particular work is quite general in subject, ranging from the invention of the steam train to the development of a system for visualizing the entire spectrum of light. It is nicely representative of this genre of Victorian technology books with large sections devoted to weaponry and shipping, as well as items like gold, diamonds, and rubber that could be easily obtained from “the colonies”. The technological optimism of the 19th century was just as much a part popular consciousness as it was in the 1950s and 60s- Victorians clamored for miniature books published with new methods of photolithography, for photographs, and for quack medical devices that made use of questionable amounts of electricity.
This book is a fascinating example of how it’s not always just history that repeats itself- attitudes are cyclical as well.