Science and Technology
This article focuses on the publication of Darwin’s final book (1881) in the context of Darwin’s larger attempts to resist the habitual anthropocentrism of human beings. It begins with Darwin’s discussion of animal cognition and the senses of worms. It concludes with his emphasis on the significant effects worm digestion has on the landscape and the fertility of the earth. The article links Darwin’s Worms Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland, arguing that both texts are engaged in dismantling human perceptions that stem from possessing a highly visual brain, and that both throw doubt on the belief that a single objective world exists independent of particular observers.
In his B Notebook on Transmutation (1837-38), Charles Darwin speculated that the “introduction of man” on the evolutionary scene was “nothing” compared to the insect, which he considered “the first thinking being.” More than any other class of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, insects and other invertebrates raised questions about the origins of mental experience and about the relationship between human and nonhuman nature. Their minds represented scientific insight at its limits, where traditional modes of observation and empirical experiment gave way to less certain tools of analogy and thought experiment. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) provides a useful historical touchstone for the evolution of these analogies and thought experiments, having constrained the field of plausible analogy from one that included physiology, philosophy, and theology, to the central analogy of common ancestry, or the shared evolutionary history of organisms. However, while Darwin’s theory of descent may have displaced other analogies, it did not replace them, and well into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, invertebrate minds continued to inspire a variety of both novel and relic assumptions and methods for examining mental affinities with our spineless distant cousins.
Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, “‘Coquetting amid incredible landscapes’: Women on the River and the Railway”
The opening of the first direct railway line from London to the Kent coast in 1862 challenged traditional dichotomies between town and country, and contributed to a growing nostalgia associated with the river. Fin-de-siècle writers used the apparent opposition between rail and river, city and country, to ask new questions about the place of women in a rapidly changing world; the transition to a new century further strained the traditional dichotomy between feminised pastoral and masculinised industrial, a tension reflected in the problematic portrayal of rail and water in the work of E. Nesbit.
This essay examines the death, and the life, of Florence Nightingale, the great nursing heroine of the Crimean War. An eminent Victorian, Nightingale passed away at the ripe old age of ninety in 1910, at a time when Britain was witnessing great internal strife and facing looming international tension. By that moment, the Crimean War was a thing of the distant past. Even so, Nightingale’s death served as a national tonic. It allowed mourners to rekindle the myths of Nightingale’s lifetime that had unified a ravaged nation in the wake of the Crimean War. Nightingale’s most important reforming efforts, which included nursing education, army improvement, and sanitary reform, both in Britain and in India, would postdate the Crimean War. However, the image of a young Nightingale ministering to the troops in the Crimea would remain the dominant one, not just in her life, but at her death as well. As it assesses the death and life of Nightingale, this essay focuses on two moments of celebrity and mythmaking in the long career of the heroine: the making of her legend in the Crimea and its resurrection at her death. It follows earlier literature, both generated during the nineteenth century and written by those who study it, establishing Nightingale as the avatar of Victorian womanhood. Accordingly, it seeks to understand Nightingale’s passing as a belated death knell to the Victorian age.
While Thomas Hardy was invited to submit something to a special number of Scribner’s Magazine that was published to celebrate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the story he submitted, “The Fiddler of the Reels,” focuses on several characters whose lives are impacted by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The focus on the two world’s fairs might lead readers to believe that Hardy was an advocate of the kinds of scientific and technological progress that such spectacles tended to celebrate. However, Hardy’s story demonstrates the power of more primitive forces and actually undermines such an easy belief in progress. By ending with a character that clearly represents primal forces that are never suppressed, the story demonstrates that the power of the primitive past is never far from the surface and may emerge at any moment to triumph over the representatives of the present.
Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869, reissued 1892) claimed to be the first statistical study of genius. Drawing on data culled from biographies and biographical dictionaries of “eminent” figures, he argued that creative and intellectual exceptionalism was measurable and heritable. Despite their claims of objectivity, the two editions demonstrate the extent to which scientific theories of intelligence and creativity were shaped by popular discourse, particularly that surrounding the figure of the Romantic genius and the ascendant Aesthete. This essay explores the influence of cultural notions of genius on Galton’s studies and notes briefly the lasting impact of his methodology, which forms the basis of IQ testing still in use today.
This article examines the discovery of non-Euclidean and higher-dimensional geometries in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
1792 witnessed the publication of the complete version of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, a lengthy nature poem that surveyed the state of science in its day. The Botanic Garden proved immensely popular on its publication but later fell out of favor as the Anti-Jacobin took aim at its liberal politics. This paper focuses on one of the most notorious sections of the poem, in which Darwin describes his plan to change the world’s climate via iceberg destruction. The argument traces the reception of Darwin’s climate imagery from its initial reception through its redeployment in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although The Botanic Garden and its plan for climate intervention might be framed in terms of what philosophers call the “negative event”—an event that fails to happen—Darwin was essentially correct in his assertion that the technologies of the industrial revolution could be used to change the climate of the globe.
The fifty-year Jubilee of Indian tea was celebrated in the Spring and Summer of 1887, coinciding precisely with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. This Jubilee had nothing to do with Victoria per se, but rather the commercial anniversary invented Indian/Ceylon tea as an icon of imperial Britishness. Industry leaders used 1887 to highlight specifically two key events in tea’s commercial and imperial history, the first moment tea arrived in Britain from Assam (1837) and the first time (April 1887) that tea from both India and Ceylon surpassed imports from China. They explained the later development by arguing that Britons had learned to appreciate modern industrial production and plantation agriculture more than old-fashioned and dirty Chinese modes of production. The Jubilee thus marked publicly how and when tea became a mass-produced and consumed imperial product.
The manufacture of artificial limbs was a Victorian growth industry, requiring an assortment of qualifications: mechanical skills, sympathy for the disabled, commercial ambition, a willingness to exaggerate in advertising, and faith in technological progress. This essay explores nineteenth-century designs for artificial hands, focusing on the stories they relay about the relationships between the people who needed artificial hands and the people who made them. These relationships concertize and personalize the complex factors at play in the history of Victorian hand prostheses: philosophies of embodiment, the hand’s role in these philosophies, the experiences of people without a hand or hands, and the impact of technology on all three.