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30 November 2022

Britain’s empire of science

How the Victorians bequeathed us their ideology of technoscientific progress.

By Duncan Bell

Advances in artificial intelligence and genomics, a new race to colonise space, a global pandemic, wars and rumours of wars, and the threat of devastating climate change, have propelled questions about the fate of humanity to the forefront of political debate. Presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and tech barons, Hollywood producers and social media influencers have joined scientists, philosophers and fiction writers in agonising over the crisis-conjuncture.

The role of technoscience – the fusion of scientific research and its technological applications – in driving social change, for good or ill, is central to thinking about the future. But debates about the relationship between technology and society, in the media, in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, and in the halls of government, occur largely without historical insight. They are characterised by an obsession with novelty, innovation, disruption. But much of what is thought of as new or as inevitable is neither.

In his excellent new book How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon, the distinguished historian of science Iwan Rhys Morus argues that we are heirs to an ideology bequeathed by the Victorians, a broadly progressive vision that insists social improvement depends on constant technoscientific innovation. What today seems like a commonplace was, Morus shows, a product of a particular time and place – it was a belief system that would have been unrecognisable to earlier generations, who typically thought that the future would broadly repeat the patterns of the past. This epochal transformation in public consciousness was forged in 19th-century Britain, continental Europe and the United States. In 1869 Mark Twain hailed the “age of inventive wonders”, an age that eventually included railways, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, combustion engines, calculating machines, electrification and, at the dawn of the 20th century, powered flight. Huge advances were made in biology, physics, and chemistry.

Central to the epochal shift in understanding nature and history was a conflict over the meaning of science. In the early 19th century an old guard, epitomised by Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society, dominated science in Britain and its globe-spanning empire. They determined who was welcomed into the club, which topics were prioritised, and who was granted resources and patronage. Following Banks’s death in 1820 a ferocious battle was waged for the “soul of science”. A new generation of ambitious engineers and scientists (a term coined in 1833) sought to dismantle the corrupt old system, and place the pursuit of knowledge and its practical application on meritocratic foundations. This was a story of bureaucratic skirmishes, fierce personal rivalries and the wielding of institutional power, as well as remarkable feats of engineering and scientific creativity. Out of this process emerged a culture of knowledge that venerated “specialised knowledge and disciplined minds”. Scientists and engineers, once often in conflict, “became co-dependent”. The ethos of modern science was born.

How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon opens in 1909, with “lunarnauts” from His Majesty’s Spaceship Victorious completing the first landing on the moon. This literal flight of fancy plays with the steampunk aesthetic that is so central to contemporary visions of Victorian technoscience, and illustrates a key theme in Morus’s insightful analysis of 19th-century futurism: the interplay between fact and fiction, speculative fantasy and rigorous scientific analysis. HG Wells and Jules Verne are as much a part of this story as the engineering wizards George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The speculative imagination – whether expressed as science fiction or the proclamations of eminent scientists and engineers – was vital in energising the public and persuading governments and wealthy philanthropists to support particular technoscientific projects. The fusion of science fiction and scientific extrapolation continues to play a vital role in shaping visions of the future. There is no clear line dividing them.

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Morus’s account is as much a cautionary tale as a flag-waving celebration. Popular accounts of the development of science still often rest on a “great man” view of history in which advances are driven by the genius of gifted individuals. This was a heroic image popularised in the 19th-century. Stephenson and Brunel, Darwin and Maxwell, Edison and Tesla – such men were cultural icons. Historians of science have long rejected this approach, highlighting the importance of scientific institutions, intellectual networks, capital and political power, as well as individual talent, in the production of knowledge. They also emphasise the vital role of gender, race and class in determining who had access to the laboratories, to resources, publicity and authority – who got to be heard and who was ignored. Alert to the class politics of the time, Morus pays attention to the “gentlemen” scientists, the self-made engineers and the skilled workers essential for realising grand Victorian schemes. Labour disputes were frequent, as were battles over intellectual property. Relations between artisans and socially-elite scientists were essential, but often fraught. A telling example is the failure of the mathematician Charles Babbage to finish his famed Calculating Engine – a complex mechanical calculating machine – after he fell out with Joseph Clement, the man he employed to design its parts.

Empire was central to the development of Victorian technoscience. Technological innovation – from improved navigation and communications systems, through to the search for new sources of energy – was frequently driven by imperial demands, and its practical success often depended on the resources of a global empire. “The future they were designed to generate was to be an imperial one,” writes Morus. Moreover, scientific authority – from evolutionary theory to developments in statistics – was often wielded to legitimate the racial hierarchies underpinning imperial rule and the “civilising mission”. Reflecting on the conditions that shaped the age of wonders should induce scepticism about some of its – and our own – core beliefs about the relationship between science, progress and the future. “By following the Victorian recipe for future-making, without reflecting on the fact that the ways we think are constrained by their histories,” Morus concludes, “we are in danger of limiting access to the future to only particular kinds of people, just as the Victorians did – they thought it only belonged to them.”

A naïve utopian streak ran through scientific speculation. Technological innovation was hailed as the solution to social and political conflict. In the last decade of the century, Nikola Tesla, the celebrity electrical engineer, proclaimed that “war would be abolished” if his own projects (wireless telegraphy) were widely adopted. Such bombast was not unusual. Showmanship and grand claims were essential for catalysing public interest and business opportunities, but they also reflected the belief that technology could remake humanity for the better. Scientific speculation encompassed the development of artificial intelligence – machines that could out-think humans – and space travel, as well as global peace and prosperity. Here the Victorian imagination exceeded that of our contemporary star-dreamers. It was a popular belief during the 19th century – deflated by the building of more effective telescopes during the twentieth – that nearby planets were populated with intelligent beings, and it was only a matter of time before contact was established. In 1869 Twain suggested that powered flight would soon be achieved, after which “we shall have only one single wonder left to work at and pry into and worry about – namely, commerce, or at least telegraphic communion with the people of Jupiter and the Moon”. An inter-planetary community beckoned. Or did it? Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) painted a rather more menacing future of space colonisation and warfare.

Morus stops short of discussing the implications of Victorian technoscience for the 20th and 21st centuries in much detail. It is hard to read the book without constant reminders of our own time, from the celebrity of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, through the interweaving of scientific pronouncements and science fiction, to the exploitation of workers in global supply chains and engineering mega-projects. Many of the denizens of Silicon Valley and its outposts remain convinced of the utopian potential of technology. Nasa hopes to return to the moon, even as Musk sets his sights on Mars.

But the differences are also important. Perhaps the most significant institutional change during the last century was the emergence of “Big Science”, the combination of university research, corporate interests and state power that was forged during the Second World War and calcified during the Cold War. The Victorians could only have dreamed of the centrality of science and technology in 20th-century statecraft and corporate life. Up until the Second World War, science and technology were not major priorities for sustained government support. This was a source of great resentment and active campaigning among British and American scientists at the time. It took the mobilisation of the war economy in the fight against Germany and Japan to shift the balance. Ever since science has been much more closely integrated with both capital and state power. The Apollo missions were one of Big Science’s most striking achievements. These connections are only likely to deepen in the years to come.

But perhaps the greatest difference is ideological. As Morus emphasises, it was a Victorian cliché that progress was “natural and built into the order of things”, and that this “meant that the future was a destination”. In this optimistic account human reason and its disciplined application could change the world for the better. Victorians rarely considered that the incessant drive for technoscientific progress might destroy humanity, that the devastation of life on earth might be the price paid for constant technoscientific progress – that the destination might be a disintegrating ruin. Yet that fear, stoked above all by the atom bomb and ecological crisis, was threaded through 20th-century imaginings of the future, and dominates the horizon today. Perhaps the future of the species becomes most salient at moments when it seems like we might not have much of a future at all.

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