Inventing the future
The Modern PrometheusIn January 1802, the chemist Humphry Davy, still only 23 years old, began a series of lectures that inspired a generation to marvel at the potential of science. He argued that science will enable man to shape his future. ‘It has bestowed upon him powers which may almost be called creative,’ he said, ‘which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar...but rather as a master.’
Amongst those inspired by this and later lectures were the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley and the philosopher William Godwin. In 1812 Godwin took his 14-year old daughter, Mary, to hear Davy lecture at the Royal Institution. So when the young Mary Godwin eloped with Percy Shelley to Switzerland in 1814, here were two kindred spirits fascinated with the prospect of science. Their discussions on the subject, along with Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, led to each challenging the other to write a ghost story. Out of this grew Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 and regarded as the first genuine work of science fiction.
The character of Victor Frankenstein drew upon several of the great philosophers and scientists of the day but there’s no doubt that Humphrey Davy is part of that essence. Mary and Percy also knew of the experiments conducted by Giovanni Aldini to try and reanimate a corpse by applying electricity to nerves and muscles. Mary wondered what would happen if electricity brought a dead creature back to life. Would it have a soul? A memory? Imagination, instinct? In short, would it be human?
1831 edition of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
The frontispiece illustrating the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1831.View images from this item (7)
Galvani, The Effects of Artificial Electricity on Muscular Motion
Illustration showing Galvani's experiments animating dead animals with electrical currents.View images from this item (5)
The March of IntellectWriting to The Times in May 1824, the industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen remarked that in recent years ‘the human mind has made the most rapid and extensive strides in the knowledge of human nature, and in general knowledge’. He called this ‘the march of intellect’ and believed it had reached a pace that could not be stopped. Building upon this, Henry Brougham established the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1826, with the purpose of enabling the education of the masses. The phrase ‘the March of Intellect’ became a rallying cry for social and technological progress, its importance being to give all classes the opportunity to better themselves. To others, though, it was seen as giving hope where in fact there was no opportunity and of raising people above their station. Would the March of Intellect benefit society or stagnate it?
Amongst those uncertain of its benefits was cartoonist William Heath who, in 1828, under the pen name Paul Pry, produced a series of posters called the March of Intellect. Even though Heath was satirising the movement, his posters include some wonderful future ideas for transport, including a steam horse and a steam coach, a vacuum tube, a bridge to Cape Town, and various forms of flight, including a flying postman.
March of Intellect
The thirst for knowledge and scientific research in the wake of the Industrial Revolution brought concerns over where all this change would lead. William Heath’s March of Intellect (c.1828), satirised the inventions, architecture and modes of transport of the future.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
March of Intellect
William Heath prints March of Intellect satirised the future of technology (c. 1828).View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
The March of ProgressThe future poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson was a supporter of the March of Intellect, or March of Mind as he preferred. In his poem ‘Locksley Hall’ (written 1835) he has a soldier reflect upon his childhood home and recall childhood as some kind of idyll, but knowing that the times are changing, he imagines a future where the heavens are filled with commerce and there is a Federation of the World.
The March of the Imagination, though, was happening in France rather than Great Britain, and particularly in the minds of two visionaries, Jules Verne and Albert Robida. Although many believe that Verne foresaw the submarine and helicopter, he did neither. He was good at extrapolating from existing inventions and showing their potential as he did with the submarine in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1870) and the propeller-driven airship in Robur le conquérant (Robur the Conqueror, 1886). His prediction on reaching the Moon was way out when he has his adventurers fired in a capsule from a massive gun in De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865), but when they return in Autour de la lune (Round the Moon, 1869) his method of recovering the capsule was almost identical to that of the Apollo capsule in 1970. Verne also built upon the writings of the American dime novelists, notably the Frank Reade series which had started with The Steam Man of the Plains (1876). The original author, Harry Enton, and his successors, notably Luis Senarens (all writing pseudonymously as ‘Noname’) had Frank Reade and his son invent a huge number of steam-powered (and later electric) machines. Verne bettered them with a steam elephant in La maison a vapeur (The Steam House, 1880). Little wonder that Verne is seen as the godfather of ‘steampunk’.
Science fiction novel, The Steam House, Part I: The Demon of Cawnpore
Jules Verne’s novel The Steam House (1881) involves a journey through India in a train drawn by a mechanical elephant powered by steam.View images from this item (1)
Science fiction novel La Vie électrique
An illustration from La vingtième siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1882), a book that looked at everyday life in the mid-20th century, depicting such things as the ‘teléphonoscope’ (an interactive television), aerocabs, food factories, submarine homes, and homes with piped food.View images from this item (2)
Natural selectionCharles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) triggered a variety of debates, not just about whether mankind was ‘descended from the apes’, but about the process of natural selection and what that meant for the future of humanity. Darwin’s second cousin Francis Galton looked at how targeted selection might improve the human race, so that desirable traits are encouraged and less desirable ones removed. He called this eugenics in 1883. It rapidly entered fiction. In ‘A Child of the Phalanstery’ (1884) Grant Allen has a future society where deformed children are killed at birth. In his essay A Visit to Topos (1897), Australian poet William Little envisaged a so-called utopia where only the fit and healthy are allowed children, while alcoholics and the diseased are denied the right to marry. American educator Edward Payson Jackson, writing anonymously, took eugenics to its logical extreme and showed the creation of a superman via hereditary selection in A Demigod (1886).
In Erewhon (1872), Samuel Butler proposed the remarkably modern idea that machines might evolve faster than humans and would become dominant, a concept that has resurfaced in recent years in terms of the technological singularity.
H G Wells considered natural selection in terms of social Darwinism in The Time Machine (1895) and forecast human evolution taking two distinct routes. The division is generated by the oppressed workers who are driven underground but over 800,000 years evolve into the dominant Morlocks, while the capitalists become the effete but helpless Eloi.
The Edison effectThe Victorian age is renowned for the wealth of inventions that helped create the modern era such as the telephone, the typewriter, the bicycle, the electric light, the motor-car, moving pictures, the gramophone and the wireless. The inventor who most captured the public imagination was the American Thomas Edison, who became known as the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’, after his factory in New Jersey. He registered over a thousand patents after his first in 1869 and became the image of the ingenious solo inventor who was single-handedly changing the world.
This in turn inspired many writers. Magazines became filled with examples of lone, often eccentric inventors coming up with new, often useless, ideas. For instance amongst the inventions in Van Wagener’s Ways (1898) by W L Alden is a way to make cats fly so they can catch birds more easily, or the perfect balloon which however doesn’t descend. One of the more ingenious inventions was tantamount to the first cyborg in ‘The Ablest Man in the World’ (1879) by Edward Page Mitchell (1852-1927) where an inventor adapts the famous analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage to fit inside a man’s head and creates a genius. In 1890 the first convicted murderer was executed by the electric chair. In ‘The Los Amigos Fiasco’ (1892) Arthur Conan Doyle improved the electric chair rather too much so that the victim is supercharged with electricity and seems to have become immortal.
H G Wells created a number of lone inventors: Griffin who masters invisibility in The Invisible Man (1897), Cavor who discovers an antigravity material in First Men in the Moon (1901), the unnamed inventor in The Time Machine (1895) and most sinister of all Dr Moreau who is experimenting with turning animals into humans in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).
'Guesses at Futurity' from the Pall Mall Gazette
Article from the Pall Mall Gazette, predicting how streets will be lit in the year 2000.View images from this item (2)
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