In her book, Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions, Caroline Rochford examines some of the incredible findings made across the world between 1875 and 1895. Here, writing for History Extra, she shares some of her highlights…
The Victorians lived in an age when knowledge could be shared faster than ever before. New railways and steamships had made it easier for intrepid explorers to visit regions of the world hitherto unseen by western eyes; telephones enabled communication across vast distances, and speedier printing presses ensured the delivery of the latest news to almost every household in the land. Meanwhile, those with a thirst for knowledge were able to read about the astounding discoveries of natural historians, who published thrilling accounts of the strange new plants and creatures they’d encountered during their forages.
Indeed, modern technology had kick-started an information revolution in every field of science. With the aid of photography, microscopes and other new contraptions, researchers were happening upon daily discoveries that promised to change the way the world worked. These many remarkable discoveries were described in the pages of forgotten Victorian compendia, which revealed the wondrous experiments and bizarre theories of the great – and not-so-great – minds of science, engineering and natural history.
1) The four-legged bird
Since the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, mankind has been captivated by the theory of evolution. In 1885 an American naturalist, Edward Morris Brigham, took great pleasure in announcing the discovery – made in 1881 – of an astonishing type of bird that lived by the banks of the Amazon River: the creature’s most incredible characteristic was that it was born with four feet.
The discovery was so contrary to the accepted order of things that it baffled scientists of the age. Even more curious was that this South American creature was four-footed only in its early life – one pair of legs developed into a set of wings some time after hatching. This was a trait akin to the regenerative power of lizards, which have the ability to regrow lost limbs, thus Brigham’s discovery seemed to confirm the evolutionary theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs.
Brigham was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature, and he compared its likeness to a pheasant. The bird, commonly known as the ‘cigana’ or ‘gypsy bird’, couldn’t sing; instead it uttered doleful and demonic cries, as if in mourning. This was an eerie sound in the dead of night, when the bird was active.
2) The electricity plant
In 1885 an unusual, tropical plant termed the phytolacca electrica was discovered on the torrid plain of Hindustan [the northern/northwestern subcontinent]. When in full bloom, this extraordinary species generated a strong current of electricity that flowed all the way through it, from root to tip.
The indigenous people who lived in the region regarded it with awe and reverence, never daring to get too close. Birds and insects that came into contact with the tree were killed at once, but most had learned to keep well away.
When the stem of the plant or a twig was snapped by hand, an intense electric shock was felt, reportedly causing even the strongest man to stagger backwards. Magnetic compasses – even at a distance of up to 20 feet – were reportedly affected by the plant’s power.
Curiously, the electric current was said to vary throughout the day, being at its strongest at about 2pm and most feeble during the night. In the rainy season the plant became completely dormant, yet its energy increased by a marked degree during thunderstorms.
The phytolacca electrica, c19th century. (Courtesy of Caroline Rochford)
3) Local anaesthetic
Victorian surgeons had long sought an anaesthetic which, when applied externally to a given part of the body, would render it completely void of feeling for a certain length of time, without the need to send the patient to sleep. This numbing property was discovered in 1884, completely by chance, by a German medical student, whose research quickly spread to America.
The substance in question was hydrochlorate of cocaine, which had been known about, but not widely used, since the mid-19th century. After accidentally splashing some of it in his eye, the student was surprised to find that it caused his eyeball to become insensitive to the touch. Further trials served to confirm this remarkable observation, and an eminent oculist in New York later performed cataract surgery on the eye of a patient without causing her any pain whatsoever.
Had it not been for this total fluke – and the absence of safety goggles – this early local anaesthetic may never have been discovered.
4) The land of the giants
Mankind’s oldest legends are peppered with tales of giants who once roamed the landscape, causing unspeakable mayhem for the regular-sized inhabitants of the earth. From David and Goliath to Jack and the Beanstalk, so frequent were the references to oversized beings that the Victorians seriously wondered whether or not a race of exceedingly tall men once existed on earth but later became extinct.
One of the investigators was Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge, a French anthropologist who made a remarkable discovery in a prehistoric burial ground at Castelnau-le-Lez, near Montpellier. In 1890 he uncovered portions of a human skeleton from the Neolithic period, which, by his calculations, came from a man who stood nearly 12ft tall. The remains were sent for examination by a team of professors at the University of Montpellier, and later by the Montpellier School of Medicine, who confirmed that the bones appeared to belong to a race of “very tall” men.
Strangely enough, an old French fable placed the cavern of a giant in the same valley of Castelnau.
5) Mankind’s lost magnetic sense
In 1883, the great scientist Lord Kelvin proposed a theory that the human race possessed both a ‘sixth sense’ – heat and force combined – and a ‘seventh sense’: that of magnetism. As such, the phenomenon of clairvoyance could be explained by the fact that some people were in tune with their magnetic sense much better than others.
Unaware of what they were picking up on, they interpreted the sensation as the presence of some invisible being, perhaps even a spirit from beyond the grave. Following a series of experiments, several people were found who, when their heads were placed between the poles of a strong electromagnet, could tell when it was turned on.
Kelvin’s theory was largely forgotten about until the 1970s, when a team of scientists revisited the subject. Through their researches they discovered that the human nose consists of bones and sinews that may once have been receptive to the earth’s magnetic field, thereby acting as a kind of in-built compass, which, during the course of evolution, became functionless.
The presence of such magnetic bones offers an explanation for how migratory animals manage to successfully navigate vast distances, and also points to the likely etymology of the old expression ‘follow your nose’.
6) Ball lightning
Nobody truly knows how or why the extraordinary phenomenon known as ball lightning is caused, but during the 19th century, hundreds of well-attested instances were chronicled.
Owing to its rarity, no photographs of the lightning had ever been taken – until, that is, 17 July 1891, at about 10.15pm. If genuine, this is the first ever photograph of ball lightning, and for more than a century it remained the only known example in existence, until Chinese scientists succeeded in capturing the phenomenon on film during a lightning storm in 2012.
The photograph of 1891 was taken by Mr Dunn, an ironmonger’s son, from the window of his father’s residence in Newcastle-on-Tyne, which overlooked the river. A thunderstorm was raging overhead, and a great ball of fire suddenly appeared over the river, reportedly moving as fast as a man could run. It was estimated to measure about 2ft in diameter, and when it came opposite the Dunn household it vanished. But before it did so, Mr Dunn managed to expose a plate in his camera.
Over the centuries, further sightings have continued to shake the nerves of witnesses and rattle the brains of many leading experts, who thus far have been unable to offer a definitive explanation for the phenomenon.
Ball lightning, c19th century. (Courtesy of Caroline Rochford)
7) Wearing newspapers
The innovative Victorians were always searching for new ways to improve their quality of life – from generating cleaner energy and recycling waste, to trying out new gardening and interior design techniques.
Without the luxury of central heating or electric blankets, winter nights were often long and cold. In the days when diseases were harder to cure, it was essential to keep warm, thereby reducing the risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness such as pneumonia.
In 1875 health officials recommended that before covering up for the night, two or three large newspapers were to be spread over the entire body and blankets thrown over the top. The result was a warm and comfortable sleep.
Similarly, before taking a cold ride on a boat or coach, or a long walk against the wind, if a newspaper was spread over the chest before buttoning up the overcoat, no chill was felt. No other method for keeping warm was found to be as cheap or effective as this.
8) The discovery of Atlantis
With so much exploration underway, the ancient legend of Atlantis [a fictional island mentioned within an allegory in Plato's works Timaeus and Critias] was once again revisited by learned men of the late 19th century, keen to learn its true location at last.
The notable zoologist Charles Émile Blanchard believed that at some point within the human geological period, the region of Labrador in Canada was once connected to Europe by a now subterranean link of land that ran from Scotland, through the Orkney and Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland. Upon investigation, the sea over this supposed tract of land was found to be comparatively shallow, and the islands in questions were therefore, Blanchard deduced, vestiges of the lost land.
His theory was supported by the fact that European animals and plants existed in America alongside species that were atypical to the western continent. Anemones, violets, roses, orchids and lilies were common to both. Certain beetles, spiders and other insects were also found on either side of the Atlantic. The reindeer of Lapland was plentiful in North America; the beaver was a native of the two continents, and so was the river perch, which never left fresh water. This being the case, how did this fish cross the salty Atlantic ocean if the two continents were never connected?
It wasn’t the main thrust of his research, but had Blanchard’s study led him to the discovery of this mythical lost land?
Caroline Rochford is the author of Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions, (Amberley Publishing, 2015). To find out more, click here.
On 25 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks exploring the Victorian period. To find out more about our Victorian Day, and to buy tickets, click here.