Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Victorian Technological Revolution: Transportation and Communications

by Gary Inbinder

The Victorian Era (1837-1901) was a period of great technological progress, especially in the industrialized West. Consider the lives of the average European—country folk, townspeople, or city-dwellers—between 1600 and 1800; the changes won’t seem that dramatic. On the other hand, the difference between 1800 and 1900 was profound.

In the fields of transportation and communication, progress that had plodded along for centuries kicked into high gear in the 19th century, especially following the Napoleonic Wars. Steamships replaced sail cutting the transatlantic crossing from weeks to days, railways reduced a day’s journey to hours, the telegraph and later the telephone and wireless made communications over long distances instantaneous.

I’m in my early sixties, so I’ve lived through a period roughly equivalent in time to Queen Victoria’s reign, and I’ve seen many changes. Take just one example. I remember our family’s first television, a twelve-inch, black and white console. You had the choice of five channels; the three networks and two local stations. We had a rabbit-ear antenna that, to put it mildly, didn’t produce the best reception, and my father was constantly changing burned out vacuum tubes, fiddling with the controls, and experimenting with different antennae.

The set lasted a few years before it gave up the ghost, and we lived without TV for a couple of years before replacing it. Fast forward, and consider the progress — solid state circuitry, color, ever larger screens, computerization, cable and direct TV, hundreds of channels from which to choose, High Definition flat screens, and all the bells and whistles of contemporary home entertainment. That will give you some idea of the sort of technological change the Victorians experienced between the 1830s and the turn of the last century.

The complete story of Victorian technological progress far exceeds the scope of this post; therefore, I’ll limit myself to a brief overview of some major improvements in transportation and communications.

Sail to Steam: Steamboats and steamships first appeared in the early nineteenth century, but their rapid development and dominance is associated with the Victorian era. In 1838 the steamers, Great Western and Sirius raced across the Atlantic, establishing the Blue Riband competition for the fastest transatlantic passage by passenger ships. Sirius crossed first, in 18 days, about 22 days better than the average for a sailing packet. However, Great Western left England 4 days after Sirius, and almost caught her, arriving in New York just one day after her rival. The competition stiffened when Samuel Cunard entered the picture. In 1840 his first ship, the Britannia, crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia in a record 11 days and 4 hours. While the increased speed was impressive, Charles Dickens, who crossed the Atlantic on the Britannia, was not enthusiastic about the accommodations:

"Before descending into the bowels of the ship, we had passed from the deck into a long narrow apartment, not unlike a gigantic hearse with windows in the sides; having at the upper end a melancholy stove, at which three or four chilly stewards were warming their hands; while on either side, extending down its whole dreary length, was a long, long table, over each of which a rack, fixed to the low roof, and stuck full of drinking-glasses and cruet-stands, hinted dismally at rolling seas and heavy weather." American Notes (1842)

From the 1840s to the 1890s ships became faster, larger, safer, and more comfortable. By the late 1870s the average Liverpool to New York crossing had been reduced to approximately 10 days, with 7 day record runs. By 1900 ships like White Star’s 17,274 ton, steel hulled, twin screw liner Oceanic were regularly making the crossing in 5 days. First and Second Class passengers crossed in relative comfort, and even the immigrants in Steerage fared better than passengers on the early steamers.

Coaches to Trains and Automobiles: The earliest years of Queen Victoria's reign saw the beginnings of a railway boom. The early railways were short lines begun in the 1820s, but they really got up a head of steam in the late 1830s and 1840s, with track spreading out across Britain. In 1840 there were approximately 1,500 miles of track, in 1850 more than 6,600, and by 1900 approximately 22,000 miles carried millions of passengers and immense quantities of freight. Speed, safety and comfort improved significantly during that period.

Novelists noted the change, and not necessarily with admiration. For example, Dickens used the railways as a metaphor for the dark side of progress, comparing the speed of the locomotive to the onward rush of life toward its inevitable end:

"Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!"
Dombey and Son (1848)

Artists also used the railways of that era as subjects for their paintings, most notably Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway.

The development of the automobile had been retarded in Britain by a law that set a 4 mph speed limit for “locomotives” driven on the roads and required the “locomotive” to be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag. The Locomotive Acts (or Red Flag Acts) had been passed to control heavy steam driven road vehicles that were considered dangerous and damaging to the roads when driven at speeds in excess of a walk. In 1896, the speed limit was raised from 4 mph to 14 mph for “Light Locomotives” and the requirement of the man on foot was abolished. The change is celebrated in the annual London to Brighton run for veteran cars. With the change in the law, motoring became popular among the British upper classes including the Prince of Wales, the first member of the Royal Family to own a car, a 1900 Daimler.

Telegraph, Telephone, and Wireless: Many believe that electric telegraphy began in 1844 in the United States when Morse opened a line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. However, in 1837 the English inventors, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone devised an electric telegraph that used magnetic needles to transmit messages. Their first telegraph linked Euston station and Camden town, and from there it spread through the burgeoning British railway system carrying messages and controlling signals, improving efficiency and safety. The first cable crossed the Channel in 1851, followed by others across the Irish and North Seas. In 1866, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s giant steamer, The Great Eastern, laid the first successful Trans-Atlantic cable. The electric communications revolution spread, and by the late 1870s, the whole world was connected by a great telegraphic web.

In 1876 the telephone was pioneered and patented in the United States by Alexander Graham Bell. The new invention became a “hit” at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition when the Emperor of Brazil remarked, “My God, it talks!” The first London telephone directory (1880) listed 255 names. That same year there were approximately 30,000 telephones in the entire United States. However, there were more than 25,000 phones in use in Britain by the late 1880s, and more than 200,000 in the U.S. by 1890. The novelist Theodore Dreiser took particular note of the new technological wonder by referencing the pay telephone in a dramatic scene:

"At the first drugstore he stopped, seeing a long-distance telephone booth inside. It was a famous drugstore, and contained one of the first private telephone booths ever erected. "I want to use your 'phone a minute," he said to the night clerk." Sister Carrie (1900)

Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co. formed in London (1897) established radio communications between England and France (1898), and in 1901, the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign, succeeded in sending and receiving signals across the Atlantic. Thus, the Victorian telecommunications revolution laid the foundations for the global communications network of today.

In 1873 Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days, taking into account all the recent advances in transportation and communications, including the completion of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, the Suez Canal, and the extension of the Indian railway system. His fictional traveller, Phileas Fogg, could plan his journey based upon reliable steamship schedules and railway timetables, and he could also take advantage of improved communications provided by the worldwide telegraphic network. To demonstrate the viability of Verne’s hypothetical journey, in 1889 New York World reporter Nellie Bly made the globe circling trip in seventy-two days. Her feat would have seemed as incredible at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign as a manned lunar landing to folks watching their twelve-inch black and white, vacuum tube televisions in the early 1950s. Like a Victorian, within the span of my lifetime, Science Fiction has become Science Fact.

For better or worse, technology took off like a rocket in the Victorian Era, and it’s been streaking its way to the stars ever since.

Gary Inbinder is a retired attorney who left the practice of law to write full-time. Drollerie Press published his first novel, Confessions of the Creature. Gary is a member of the Historical Novel Society. He is also a member of the Bewildering Stories Editorial Review Board, and his short fiction, articles and essays appear in Bewildering Stories, Halfway Down the Stairs, Litsnack, Morpheus Tales, The Absent Willow Review, The Copperfield Review, Humanitas, Touchstone Magazine and other publications. Gary's second novel, The Flower to the Painter (Fireship Press 2011)the story of a female artist in Victorian Europe who masquerades as man to advance her career, is now available from Amazon and other retailers.


  1. Gary, what a remarkable article! Technological advances in the Victorian era might have seemed like a slow-walk at one time, but not when one looks at the entire picture and particularly not when my birthday year comes up. And I though in 1942 we were hip -- I remember going to the grocery store down the street and ask to use the phone. Well, look at what's happened since. A remarkably well written and eye-opening article. Thank you.


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  3. This was a wonderful post, Gary. Had to read it a few times to absorb everything.

  4. Gary, in your description of the great advances in modern television, you forgot to mention that there's still not much on... :o)

  5. I've bookmarked it for future reference! ;o) And Bill Bowler: You are right...there still isn't much on!

  6. Thanks for the information Gary! I'll use it for a presentation on my favourite subject: english. I hope you don't mind, it's very interesting.

  7. thx for the help i need something for my project :)

  8. Thank you ever so much Gary. This will help immensley with my victorian era project