Science and Technology in the 19th Century

By Tim Lambert

During the 19th century science made great progress. John Dalton (1766-1844) published his atomic theory in 1808. According to the theory, matter is made of tiny, indivisible particles. Dalton also said that atoms of different elements had different weights. Dalton also studied color blindness.

In 1827 the German chemist Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) isolated aluminium. In 1828 he produced urea, an organic compound from inorganic chemicals. A Russian, Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) formulated the Periodic Table, which arranged all the known elements according to their atomic weight.

Meanwhile people continued to master electricity. In 1819 a Dane, Hans Christian Oersted discovered that an electric current in a wire caused a nearby compass needle to move. The Englishman Michael Faraday (1791-1867) invented the dynamo. In 1847 the German Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) formulated the law of the Conservation of Energy, which states that energy is never lost but just changes from one form to another. In 1851 he invented the ophthalmoscope.

Meanwhile, geology made huge strides. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) saw that rocks were formed by processes we see today. In 1830 he published his book Principles of Geology. In 1837 a Swiss, Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) realized that a vast sheet of ice had once covered northern Europe. Furthermore, scientists discovered more and more fossils, and the word Dinosaur was coined in 1842.

In 1831 Darwin sailed on the beagle. In February 1832 the Beagle reached Brazil. Darwin spent three years in different parts of South America collecting specimens. Then in September 1835, the Beagle sailed to the Galapagos Islands. Darwin was surprised to learn the local people could tell by looking at a tortoise which island it came from. Darwin also studied finches. Each island had a different species of finch. Later Darwin came to the conclusion that all were descended from a single species of finch. On each island, the finches had diverged and become slightly different.

By 1836 Darwin believed that species of animals could change. In October 1838 Darwin thought of a way in which one species could change into another. He noticed that individual members of a species vary. Furthermore, all animals are competing with each other to survive. If the environment changed in some way, say if a new, faster predator appeared then any herbivores that could run slightly faster than other members of its species would be more likely to survive and reproduce. Any herbivores that ran slightly slower than most would be more likely to be eaten. Slowly a new, faster herbivore would evolve. This was later called the survival of the fittest. Darwin’s monumental work The Origin of Species was published in 1859. It proved to be a bestseller.

Charles Darwin

In 1866 an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel discovered the laws of hereditary by breeding peas.

Medicine and surgery made great advances in the 19th century. During the 19th century, there were several outbreaks of cholera in Britain. It struck in 1832, 1848, 1854, and 1866. During the 1854 epidemic, John Snow (1813-1858) showed that cholera was transmitted by water. However doctors were not certain how.

Later Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) proved that microscopic organisms caused disease. In the early 19th century many scientists believed in spontaneous generation i.e. that some living things spontaneously grew from non-living matter. In a series of experiments between 1857 and 1863 Pasteur proved this was not so. Once doctors what caused diseases they made rapid headway in finding cures or prevention.

In the late 19th century physics made great strides. In 1873 James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) showed that light is an electromagnetic wave. He also predicted there were other electromagnetic waves with longer and shorter wavelengths than light. Then in 1888, Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) proved the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell exist. In 1896 Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered radioactivity. Then in 1898 Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Pierre Curie (1859-1906) discovered radium and polonium. Finally, at the end of the century, scientists began to investigate the atom. In 1897 Joseph Thomson discovered the electron.

In astronomy, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first asteroid, Ceres in 1801. In 1838 Friedrich Bessel (1784-1846) measured the distance to a star (61 Cygni) for the first time. The planet Neptune was discovered in 1846.

Technology in the 19th Century

In the 19th century people mastered electricity. In 1819 a Dane, Hans Christian Oersted discovered that an electric current in a wire caused a nearby compass needle to move. The Englishman Michael Faraday (1791-1867) showed that a magnet can produce electricity. In 1831 Faraday invented the dynamo. Meanwhile, the electromagnet was invented in 1825. In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In the 19th century machines in factories were usually operated by steam engines. At the end of the 19th century, they began to convert to electricity.

In the mid 19th century travel was revolutionized by railways. They made travel much faster. (They also removed the danger of highwaymen). The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. However, the first major railway was from Liverpool to Manchester. It opened in 1830. In the 1840s there was a huge boom in building railways and most towns in Britain were connected. The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890. Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made the first cars in 1885 and 1886.

Meanwhile at sea travel was revolutionized by the steamship. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. Furthermore, it used to take several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1838, a steamship called the Sirius made the journey in 19 days. However steam did not completely replace sail until the end of the 19th century when the steam turbine was used on ships.

A number of inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. The safety pin was invented in 1849. Henry Seely invented the electric iron in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. The zip fastener was invented in 1893.

Gaslight first became common in well-off people’s homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s. Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb in 1878. Edison invented a better version in 1879.

During the 19th century medicine made great advances. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) proved that microscopic organisms caused disease. In the early 19th century many scientists believed in spontaneous generation i.e. that some living things spontaneously grew from non-living matter. In a series of experiments between 1857 and 1863 Pasteur proved this was not so. Once doctors understood what caused diseases they made rapid headway in finding cures or prevention.

During the 19th century, surgery was greatly improved by the discovery of Anesthetics. As early as 1799 the inventor Humphry Davy (1778-1829) realized that inhaling ether relieved pain. Unfortunately, decades passed before it was actually used. An American dentist Henry H. Morgan began using ether in 1846.

In the same year, ether was used as an anesthetic by surgeons. James Simpson (1811-1870), who was Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University, began using chloroform for operations in 1847. Incredibly some people disapproved of using chloroform to relieve pain, especially if it was used to help women giving birth. Some people thought that childbirth ought to be painful! However, in 1853 Queen Victoria insisted on having chloroform when she gave birth to her eighth child. Afterward, most of the opposition to using chloroform ended. Nobody dared criticize the queen!

In 1865 Joseph Lister (1827-1912) discovered antiseptic surgery, which enabled surgeons to perform many more complicated operations. Lister prevented infection by spraying carbolic acid over the patient during surgery. German surgeons developed a better method. The surgeon’s hands and clothes were sterilized before the operation and surgical instruments were sterilized with superheated steam. Rubber gloves were first used in surgery in 1890. Anesthetics and antiseptics made surgery much safer. They allowed far more complicated operations. In 1851 Herman von Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope. The hypodermic syringe was invented in France in 1853. In 1895 x-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen. The same year aspirin was invented.

During the 19th-century people discovered new materials. Portland cement was invented in 1824. In 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered rubber vulcanization and celluloid was invented in 1869. In 1856 Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) invented the Bessemer converter, which converted iron to steel by blowing air through it while molten.

Meanwhile, a whole host of inventions improved life for people during the 19th century. These included the lawnmower in 1830. Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper in 1831 and the cash register in 1879. Other useful inventions were barbed wire by Joseph Glidden in 1873 and the electric fan in 1882. In 1885 Donald Dewar invented the vacuum flask.

At the end of the 19th century bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale. Bicycling clubs became common. The steam-driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common.

One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However, photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded what their loved one looked like. The first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterward, photography became a popular hobby.

The industrial revolution also transformed warfare. Railways meant armies could be transported much faster than before. The telegraph meant that messages could also be transmitted much faster.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) developed the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used at Copenhagen in 1807 and they set most of the town on fire. However rockets lacked both range and accuracy and after the Napoleonic Wars, they fell from favor. Meanwhile, in 1807, a Scot named Alexander Forsyth patented the percussion cap. When a trigger was pulled a hammer hit a container of fulminate of mercury, which exploded and ignited the charge of gunpowder. The percussion cap replaced the flintlock.

In 1837 Johann von Dreyse invented the first breech-loading firearm, the needle-gun. It was adopted by the Prussian army in 1841. Over the following decades, the breech-loading rifle was refined and improved. Breech-loading guns greatly increased the rate of fire. The British army began using breech-loading guns in 1865.

The range of guns was improved by rifling. Some guns had been rifled for centuries but it only became commonplace in the 19th century. In the late 19th century rifles were improved further by the introduction of magazines, which greatly increased the rate of fire. Meanwhile, in 1835 Samuel Colt invented the revolver. Traditionally the cavalry fought with pistols and swords but the revolver made swords obsolete.

In the 19th century many people experimented with machine guns. In 1862 Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun. However, the first really successful machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884. It was adopted by the British army in 1889.

War at sea was changed by exploding shells, by steam engines, and by iron ships. In 1858 the French launched La Gloire. It was made with plates of iron fixed onto timber. However, in 1860 Britain launched HMS warrior. This ship was made with an iron hull instead of a wooden hull with iron plates fixed on it. Soon the traditional gun deck on warships was replaced by turret guns on the top deck. In the 1860s Robert Whitehead developed the modern torpedo. The British navy began making torpedoes in 1871. In the 19th century, new explosives were invented to replace gunpowder. TNT was invented in 1863 and dynamite followed in 1867. Cordite was invented in 1889.

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