Science and Technology
This article argues that, in 1862, when he published his most influential book The Art of Decorative Design, Christopher Dresser joined the multi-disciplinary enterprise of the physiological aesthetics in the name of ornamental form, positioning the theory of ornament as a crucial cutting edge of the empirical study of human aesthetic responses. I read The Art of Decorative Design in relation to contemporary psychological-aesthetics texts by Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, James Sully, Edmund Gurney, and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson and Vernon Lee to show that Dresser finds in ornamental form a site for a materialist physiological understanding of aesthetic response—and he does so well prior to the essays on aesthetics that were published in the journal Mind from the 1870s on. Like contemporary empirical aestheticists—and in distinction to other ornamentists of his time—Dresser emphasizes the mental “laws” that orchestrate our reactions to forms in nature and in ornament alike. Tracing in Dresser’s design handbook an approach to ornamental form that becomes fully “physiologized” in Bain’s, Sully’s, Gurney’s, and Lee’s writing makes more complete the critical picture of the so-called “lesser” (and often pejoratively feminized) decorative arts as a fertile ground for the theories and practices the empirical aestheticists were pursuing.
This entry considers a well-known instrument of popular Victorian culture—the stereoscope. I look at three aspects of the stereoscope in particular: its double status as both entertainment and instrument of scientific investigation; the significance of its rapid obsolescence; and its anticipation of modern aspirations to create a “virtual reality.” The latter is particularly important in light of recent attempts to sketch the pre-history of recent “born-digital” forms of immersive entertainment.
By 1888, the technology of the phonograph, and the medium of the phonograph cylinder, were established as market-ready. What was the imagined potential of this media technology in relation to known modes of communication and expression? This article recounts how “The Phonogram” or phonographic letter was prototyped from 1887 to 1892 through the efforts of Thomas Alva Edison and his London agent George Gouraud. Edison’s prototyping work and Gouraud’s efforts in developing recordings, scripts for phonogramic speeches, and formats for typographical transcription of the cylinder recordings represent a rich case study for documenting the nature and significance of their efforts to consolidate the medium and define the generic parameters of the phonogram (a speech recording) as a distinct form of global communication. By theorizing the relationship between late-Victorian concepts of medium, format and genre, respectively, and by interpreting the “first phonogramic poem” (16 June 1888) as an articulation of the meaning of sound recording at the historical moment that it arrived as a viable media technology, this article helps explain how sound recording technologies were imagined in relation to specific genres of communication. Drawing upon periodical literature, and documentation available through the Thomas Edison Papers archive—including phonogramic transcripts and speeches, marketing and foreign business strategies, patent applications, and packaging and design documents—this article explains, in particular, the generic and rhetorical protocols that informed the attempt to establish the phonogram as a new medium of intimate communication and international correspondence.
This essay argues that Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, which was published December 27, 1871, refers repeatedly to mathematics and logic in ways that, while certainly playful, reflect a careful thinking through of Boolean logic. Just as George Boole’s symbolic algebra relies on relational and oppositional binaries to create an internally coherent system, Through the Looking Glass experiments with binaries in their various forms, often using the numbers zero and one as placeholders for more complex ideas. This model of logic as a systematic grouping of concepts that could be represented numerically and visually would influence Carroll’s later work, culminating in Symbolic Logic (1896).
This entry considers the lines of continuity between certain aspects of Victorian popular culture and those turn-of-the-21st-century forms of (and aspirations to) real-time, immersive entertainment that we dub “virtual reality.” I argue that virtuality has two aspects, one historical and one phenomenological, and that the middle of the nineteenth century provided templates for both. Like several other scholars (most notably Clayton, Byerly and Plotz), I see the aspiration to virtuality manifested in realist as well as illusionistic genres. I trace virtuality to the Benjaminian concept of the “aura,” but offer a new reading of that term as an historical phase (with a terminal point) rather than as an historically produced essence.
In Problems of Life and Mind (1874—79), George Henry Lewes posits his theory of “Scientific psychology,” which is founded on a synthesis between the objective study of the mind practiced in physiology and the subjective study of consciousness practiced in philosophy. Problems is an important text because it is one of the last quintessentially “Victorian” studies, a wide-ranging work produced before the full establishment of disciplinary boundaries. It combines a variety of discourses—including philosophy, physiology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and sociology—in order to establish a comprehensive methodology for the scientific study of consciousness. This entry positions Problems into its nineteenth-century psychological and philosophical tradition, as understood by Lewes; provides a summary of the overarching argument of Problems; and outlines the contributing sub-claims made in each of its discrete series.
Nathan K. Hensley and John Patrick James, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the Victorian End of Nature”
The darkened form of the common peppered moth, biston betularia f. carbonaria, known colloquially as the “soot moth,” was virtually unknown in England prior to 1800. The first reliable field specimen was collected outside of Manchester in 1848, plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy. With their black abdomen and wings, these darkened morphs contrasted starkly with what had once been the more frequent form: a white-bodied moth lightly speckled with black and brown. As scientific studies now show, the black morph appeared as a result of industrial manufacture, first around major production centers and later around London. This article traces those studies to argue that the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth signals a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history: its appearance augurs a new fossil modernity, in which coal replaces wood and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and as stored sunlight, archived as coal, takes center stage as the driver for an endless steam-powered project of worldmaking. Tracing studies of “industrial melanism” to its origins at the beginning of this extractive, fossil-fueled modernity helps us see the soot moth’s emergence as a watershed moment in the history of life and a new chapter in humankind’s relationship to the category of nature.
Shannon Draucker, “Hearing, Sensing, Feeling Sound: On Music and Physiology in Victorian England, 1857-1894”
This entry focuses on new developments in the burgeoning field of acoustical science that emerged in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. During this time, sound science began to flourish in England, particularly through lectures by Hermann von Helmholtz and John Tyndall at the Royal Institution. The publications of Helmholtz’s Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music) (1863, trans. 1875) and John Tyndall’s Sound (1867) also contributed to the transmission of acoustical theory mid-century. This entry traces the reception of these scientific ideas in musical, medical, educational, and literary circles in Victorian England. Focusing especially on new discoveries about sound’s capacity to incite physiological sensations, this essay argues that acoustical science fundamentally transformed the ways that Victorians conceptualized the relations between aesthetics and the body.
Kathleen Frederickson, “British Writers on Population, Infrastructure, and the Great Indian Famine of 1876-8”
This article examines British writing about the 1876-8 famine in southern and western India. In British newspapers and journals, the turn to thinking about famine in terms of the total population obscured the extreme variations in food access that worsened with rising economic inequality. When the British press in the late-1870s turned to human causes of famine, they either argued that India’s population overburdened India’s land, or suggested that more rail construction would prevent enough deaths sufficiently to mitigate British responsibility for famine conditions. The turn to population-based arguments helped either to perpetuate the belief that famine was a quasi-natural part of India or to parse the sudden increase in the frequency and severity famines in India under British rule.
Nicholas Daly, “Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (April, 1894) and the Rise of Ruritanian Fiction”
Anthony Hope’s bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, inspired a subgenre of adventure romances set in imaginary, semi-feudal European countries, of which Ruritania is the original. English and later American protagonists stumble into plot-driven narratives that usually feature some combination of schemes against the throne, doubles or mistaken identities, swordplay, and love at first sight. Since the 1890s, Ruritanian backdrops have been reworked for a variety of purposes, from Balkan spy novels, to interwar operetta, to Cold War satires, in such fictional territories as Ixania, Krasnia, and Grand Fenwick.