How the Victorians ruined the world

We think of our 19th-century ancestors as great engineers and scientists, but did their innovations cause more problems than they solved? Kat Arney highlights four examples...

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

A girl is chauffeured in a three wheeled motor vehicle.
A girl is chauffeured in a three wheeled motor vehicle. The motor car traces its roots back to the 1860s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

1) They motored along the road
 to environmental disaster 

 
The motor car traces its roots back to the 1860s, when Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus built a pushcart powered by a gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engine. By the turn of the 20th century, cars were becoming increasingly popular, opening up rural areas and giving travellers a taste of true freedom. 
 
Today there are more than a billion cars worldwide, mostly powered by petrol or diesel engines, contributing to at least a tenth of global carbon dioxide emissions as well as other pollutants. On top of that, there are diesel-powered trains and ships, and those kerosene-burning jet planes. 
 
Yet the internal combustion engine wasn’t the only solution available to the Victorians. Stirling engines, powered by heat exchange, were a promising alternative. Running on any available fuel, from wood to cow dung, miniature versions could even be driven by the heat from a cup of tea. Victorian transport engineers also explored the potential of electric cars, as well as hydrogen engines. 
 
In the end, the convenience and flexibility of petrol cars won out, fuelled by a growing network of filling stations. But a shrinking pool of fossil fuels, along with environmental concerns, is encouraging today’s engineers to take a fresh look at some of these alternative technologies. 
 

Siegfried Marcus’s pioneering motor car, pictured in c1870. (Getty Images)
 

2) They sent sewage down the pan

 
One of the most notable inventions at that era-defining London expo, the Great Exhibition of 1851, was George Jennings’ water closet. Flushed with excitement at this toilet technology, many Londoners installed water-based loos in their homes, connecting them to surface drains. This might have made their lives less smelly but it wasn’t good news for everyone. Soon, the capital had become rife with cholera, prompting Sir Joseph Bazalgette to build the intercepting sewer system, along with impressive sewage pumping stations.
 
This rush to flush meant that more sustainable low-water solutions, such as Henry Moule’s earth closet (1860), failed 
to flourish. But waterless toilets like the Loowatt are gaining ground today, providing safe sanitation and generating fertiliser and energy to boost the local economy in developing countries. Where there’s muck, there’s brass!
 

 

3) They dabbled in the dark arts of social engineering

 
In November 1859, barnacle-obsessive Charles Darwin published his most famous work: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin visualised life on Earth as a mighty tree, covering the world with its “ever branching and beautiful ramifications”. Since then, data from all fields of science has shown that natural selection is a powerful driver that shapes species. It’s an idea that is as simple as it 
is powerful, and an example of Victorian scientific thinking at its very best.
 
But it was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who took this great theory too far. As well as inventing forensic fingerprinting and weather maps, Galton proposed that encouraging the most intelligent people to have children – while discouraging those at the lower end – would shift the curve and create a cleverer society. 
 
Coining the term ‘eugenics’ to describe his idea, Galton did not live to see it taken to grotesque extremes through the extermination of millions of Jews and other ethnic groups by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Eugenics was still practised in some forms well into the 20th century, including enforced sterilisation of ‘undesirables’ in the US and the enthusiastic promotion of birth control for native citizens living in British colonies. 
 
 

4) They opened the doors to a little 
grey invasion of Britain

 
The Victorians were big fans of the natural world, and wealthier citizens built grand museums, zoos, parks, aquariums and aviaries to display 
their biological bounty. Acclimatisation societies sprang up, taking British animals and plants to the colonies to provide a taste of home in exotic climes. Foreign species were introduced to the UK in return, including American grey squirrels and 
Japanese knotweed. 
 
The grey invaders quickly out-competed their native red cousins (as well as giving them deadly squirrelpox), while Japanese knotweed ran rampant across the gardens of England. On 
the positive side, Charles Darwin engineered a scheme to ‘re-green’ 
the desolate south Atlantic island of 
Ascension. Although Darwin’s 
experiment revealed how to bring ruined landscapes back to life, 
today’s conservationists are still struggling with the Victorian legacy 
of invasive species.  
 
 
 
This article accompanied the 2017 BBC Radio 4 series Did the Victorians Ruin the World? Dr Kat Arney is a science writer, broadcaster and author of Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work (Bloomsbury, 2016)
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