Thursday, 13 April 2017

Victorian Inventions - a Triumph of the Imagination

Queen Victoria, Public Domain

A train achieving an average speed of 55 m.p.h. and a top speed of 75 m.p.h was operating between London and Birmingham in 1847. 

The typewriter appeared in 1867, the first telephone that actually worked was produced by Graham Bell in 1876, and, in 1879 London was the first city in Europe to have a telephone exchange. The phonograph (a talking machine) appeared in 1879. (Apart from its more obvious uses, it must have been a great wonder for Victorian children from wealthier families, as it was used to produce talking books and talking dolls). 

By the end of the century, the automobile, the electric tramcar, X-rays, the cinema and the wireless were also making great changes to Victorian lives. Yet, in 1865, when the railways totalled around 100,000 miles in length worldwide, with their Pullman carriages, and great steamships carrying thousands of passengers sailed across the oceans, bicycles were still very basic contraptions.

In the late 1840s, Stringfellow built a model flying machine with a wingspan of 3 metres. Its light steam engine enabled it to fly around 15 yards. But, after that, despite meticulous research, determination and a great deal of financial outlay, little progress was made in constructing an aeroplane capable of carrying a man.  

The only inventor who made any real progress was a Frenchman called Penaud who designed a monoplane with many modern features including an automatic pilot, but sadly he committed suicide while still very young and before his efforts reached fruition. 

Dirigible airships were invented in the 1870s, but as we now know, did not achieve lasting success, as they were unreliable and dangerous.

Victorians began producing large quantities of cast steel in the 1860s, resulting in the construction of great bridges and structures, The Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn and Forth Bridges were all completed by the late 1880s. 

Electricity too, was a new excitement at that time, when Volta, in 1880 developed a source for electricity using acid and metals. Following this came electric motors, dynamos, the electro-magnetic telegraph and finally transformers, all of which came into general use by the mid to late 1880s.

There were also some rather curious inventions and these are just a few examples. Around 1870, the Pedespeed was a kind of skating apparatus, which had stirrups and foot pieces attached to wheels which operated on the outside of the leg and measured about 14 inches in diameter. Ladies had to use shields to cover the tops of the wheels to protect their dresses. 

In 1883, a tricycle for two persons appeared, with two enormous wheels at the sides and one smaller wheel in front. Two people could ride in it side-by-side and one could imagine it would be a charming spectacle to see two ladies riding in it wearing their pretty dresses. 

In 1869, people could cycle on the water in a strange boat-like contraption with a bicycle constructed at the back. But the most curious of all must be the Velocipide, a bicycle in a shallow tub attached to a shower contraption. The cycle actually worked the shower pump so Victorians could get themselves clean and have a morning workout at the same time.

The Victorian capacity for turning imagination into invention was truly an extraordinary thing.

Brighton, Murders and Misedemeanours by Janet Cameron (Amberley Publishing) 

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