Inventing the future

Mike Ashley explores how the technological changes initiated by the Industrial Revolution inspired 19th-century writers.
The Industrial Revolution had kick-started the demand for bigger and better technology, and this in turn encouraged writers to imagine what form future technology or scientific progress might take.

The Modern Prometheus

In 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

1831 edition of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus [page: frontispiece]

The frontispiece illustrating the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1831.

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Galvani, The Effects of Artificial Electricity on Muscular Motion

Galvani, The Effects of Artificial Electricity on Muscular Motion [page: Tabula 2]

Illustration showing Galvani's experiments animating dead animals with electrical currents.

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The March of Intellect

Writing 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.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

March of Intellect

William Heath prints March of Intellect satirised the future of technology (c. 1828).

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

The March of Progress

The 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.

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Albert Robida exploited electricity rather than steam. In a series of heavily illustrated books, especially La vingtième siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1882), he 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. Women are fully liberated. A new continent has been created because of overpopulation. Russia has vanished following a revolution, and the United States is divided between Germany and China. There’s much more. Robida, not Verne, was the true visionary of his day.

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. 

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Natural selection

Charles 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 effect

The 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).

Amongst the many attempts at depicting future technology was a series of eight illustrations by Fred T Jane called ‘Guesses at Futurity’ (1894-95) showing city and family life in the year 2000. It includes heating from the sun, improved street lighting, chemical food, television and even gold-mining on the Moon.

Edison would himself become a character in fiction, starting with L’Ève future (The Future Eve, 1886) by Villiers de L’Isle Adam, where he creates an electrically powered human duplicate, or android. The word ‘robot’ did not enter the English language until 1923 and all earlier examples are called either androids or automata. One of the more amusing appears in ‘A Wife Manufactured to Order’ (1895) by Alice W Fuller where a husband believes an automaton wife would be better than a human one but soon tires of her perfection.

'Guesses at Futurity' from the Pall Mall Gazette

Article from the Pall Mall Gazette, predicting how streets will be lit in the year 2000. 

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Copyright: © British Library Board

  • Mike Ashley
  • Mike Ashley has been a researcher into all corners of science fiction and fantastic literature for almost fifty years and has published over a hundred books and almost a thousand articles. He received the Pilgrim Award in 2002 from the Science Fiction Research Association for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy. He compiled the volume Out of This World to accompany the British Library exhibition of that name in 2011.

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