A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

I is for Innovation

As Richard Menke puts it, ‘The Victorian age didn’t simply witness a succession of technological innovations. Rather, its institutions and ideologies helped to produce and shape a rising culture of invention, a development affirmed in areans ranging from advertising and journalism to patent reform (2020, 357).

From the early nineteenth century, the spread of mass education in Britain and the urge to mark progress animated public debate. William Heath’s series ‘March of Intellect’ shared a satirical view of the effects of such social and technological progress. His 1828 scene depicts a busy street scene where coach-drivers and stall-holders are distracted by their newly acquired literacy, while inventions offer accelerated forms of transport – whether via windlass into a three-storey shop, into the skies on board a hot air balloon, or via steam engine. In a subsequent 1829 sketch, Heath muses at ‘Lord how the world improves as we grow older’ as steam and other inventions accelerate the means of transportation across the British Empire. A cannon shoots out Irish emigrants for ‘quick conveyance’ and a winged beast carries convicts to New South Wales, while the ‘Grand Vacuum Tube Company’ offers direct travel to Bengal. Passengers straddle the ‘steam horse’, or take a carriage from London to Bath in ‘six hours’, while pedestrians walk across a suspension bridge to Cape Town. Meanwhile, Robert Seymour’s 1828 take on the ‘March of Intellect’ envisions the manifestation of the new London University (established in 1826) in steam-powered robot form, sweeping away corrupt doctors, lawyers and clerics.Looking ahead to the year 2000, Charles Grant depicted in 1834 ‘the century of invention’, or ‘the march of Aerostation, steam, rail roads, moveable houses and perpetual motion’. On and above Hampstead Heath Street, Grant envisioned horse-less carriages, winged hunters, hot air balloon races, and a train carrying buildings, while passersby discuss the exhaustion of ‘coal mines in the north’, a reflection of the insatiable industrial appetite for fossil fuels. Over forty years later, Linley Sambourne wondered at the pace of invention, such that newly developed technologies such as the sewing machine, locomotive, thermometer and the Martin Henry gun, would soon become exhibits in the ‘Museum of Modern Antiques’, curated by a prominent gentleman wearing an ‘electro-magnetic locomotive costume of the future’. The acceleration of invention would continue apace.

Linley Sambourne, ‘Museum of Modern Antiques’, 1878, Wellcome Library, no. 36108i.