When you think of the Victorian era these pictures might pop into your head: ladies with a big hat and bustle, kids working as chimney sweeps, gentlemen in top hats on penny farthings or families living overcrowded tenements. You might not think of movies, cars and phones - but they were all Victorian inventions!
Queen Victoria's reign lasted almost 64 years from 1837 until 1901. During that period lots of things changed and evolved. Think about 64 years back from today, life is very different now compared to the 50's and 60's.
In this blog we are going to find out about some amazing Victorian inventions that were a starting point for the devices, vehicles and much more that we use today.
Typewriter - 1874
Before typewriters all writing was done by hand, the invention of the typewriter revolutionised this. The first commercially available typewriter was introduced in 1874 by the Remington company, attempts had been made by other inventors to create a useable typewriter but none as successful as the Remington 1.
By the 1880's typewriters were widely used in offices, at home, and by students and professional writers. Work could be completed quickly and efficiently. Carbon copy sheets were used to create copies of a typed document that previously would have been written out multiple times.
Typewriters were widely used until the 1980's when they were gradually replaced with computers.
Today we still use the QWERTY keyboard first introduced on typewriters but we don't need the ribbons or carbon copy sheets AND our phones and laptops weigh a lot less than a Remington 1 typewriter! The typewriter is an important Victorian invention that led us to some of the technology we use today.
Telephone - 1876
Before the telephone people communicated face-to-face or by letter, there was no way to speak directly to someone in the next street or town and the idea of speaking to someone in another country was unbelievable! Many Victorian inventors had discovered it was possible to speak to someone over wires so it was a race to create a useable design and claim the accolade of being the inventor of the telephone.
In 1876, Scottish born inventor, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the US patent for the telephone and he is usually credited with its invention. In the late 1870's Bell spread the word of the telephone: he gave public lectures and demonstrations; he made a special set of telephones for Queen Victoria; and he set up the Bell Telephone Company. By 1886 more than 150,000 people in the USA owned a telephone.
The first telephone call was between Bell and his assistant who was in another room, as the network of telephone wires grew the distance between the calling and receiving telephones increased. By 1915 a telephone call was made between Bell and his assistant who were over three thousand miles apart, one in New York and one in San Francisco.
I wonder what Alexander Graham Bell would make of the telephones we use today?!
1892 - Alexander Graham Bell placing the first telephone call from New York to Chicago
Safety Bicycle - 1885
The safety bicycle is another amazing Victorian invention! Before the bicycle, people walked, rode a horse or travelled in a horse-drawn vehicle to get from A to B - there were no cars, buses, scooters or skateboards! If you think about it, most people walk a mile in about 20 minutes or 3mph so, if you didn't have a horse (and not everyone did) it would take you a four hour round trip to visit a friend six miles away!
Most inventions are an evolution of ideas that improve with time and testing, the safety bicycle is the same. You have the 'Boneshaker' with its wooden wheels and uncomfortable ride and the Penny Farthing with a five foot tall front wheel and no brakes! Both of which were popular until the invention of the safety bicycle, so named because it was safer to ride than previous inventions.
The safety bicycle is very similar to the bicycles that we ride today, with wheels of equal size, inflatable tyres and a pedal-driven chain connected to the back wheel. The safety bicycle revolutionised travel for the Victorians, most amateur cyclists can travel at around 15mph so that four hour round trip to visit a friend could be completed in a fifth of the time, depending on hills!
Victorian ladies enjoying a bicycle ride c. 1900
Motor Car - 1886
Carl Benz was a German engineer known for inventing the first ever motor car. The Benz Patent Motorwagon was patented in 1886 and became available to buy in 1888. The Benz Motorwagon could reach a top speed of around 10mph.
Similar to other Victorian inventions, although Carl Benz is credited with inventing the motor car, there were many other engineers and scientists working on its development including some names you might recognise: Gottlieb Daimler, Armand Peugeot, Henry Ford, Rudolph Diesel, and the Renault brothers.
Over the decades since 1886 cars have been developed and improved, they are safer and more powerful today. There is currently much discussion about a transition to using electric vehicles which was also a Victorian invention, its just taken over a century to catch on!
X-rays - 1895
In 1895, W.C. Rontgen, a German physics professor, accidentally discovered X-rays while carrying out another experiment. Almost immediately scientists realised that X-rays could be used in medicine as a diagnostic tool. For the first time ever doctors could see inside a patient without using a scalpel. The discovery of X-rays transformed many aspects of medicine and are still used today to look for broken bones, other injuries or disease. The use of X-rays makes diagnosis and treatment safer and easier.
Moving Pictures - 1895
In 1895, moving pictures could only be viewed one person at a time through a Kinetoscope invented by Thomas Edison. French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented a device that could record moving pictures and project them to large audiences, the Lumiere brothers named their device the Cinematograph - it was the first ever film camera. The brothers recorded footage of everyday life in France and hosted the first ever public screening of moving pictures on December 28th 1895 at the Grand Café in Paris. You can view footage on YouTube.
Their pioneering work was the beginning of an entertainment industry which is still going strong today, an industry named after their innovative camera - cinema.
Wireless Communication - 1896
We have discovered how Victorians made a phone call, now lets find out how they sent a text message! During the Victorian era people could communicate by letter but it was much faster to send an electrical telegraph. A message was relayed in Morse code across wires between two telegraph offices. Although this system was quick an efficient, the wire still caused limitations!
In 1895, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was working on an idea that these messages could be transmitted using radio waves which would eliminate the need for wires.
In the late 1890's, Marconi travelled to the UK to demonstrate that a Morse code message could be sent over radio waves and at increasing distances. In 1901, he sent a message across the Atlantic between the UK and Canada.
Instant messaging over long-distances without wires was a game-changer for international communication and ship to shore communication. In 1912, a wireless message for help was sent from the Titanic when it struck an iceberg.
Marconi's invention was a precursor for the international wireless network we have today.
Marconi reading a wireless telegraph message
Want to find out more about the Victorians? Take a look at our explainer video.
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