Victorian Speed – Time Flies When You’re Having FUN!

On Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science threw open its doors for its first ever ‘late’ – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. With six separate activities based on our postdocs’ research interests and a Victorian photo booth to boot, we had a riotous evening of nineteenth century hijinks.

Here, the Diseases of Modern Life team reflect on their individual activities.

Dr. Hosanna Krienke

My “Timing the Victorians” quiz invited guests to try to guess the speed of various aspects of life in the 1800s. Many quiz-takers were amazed by how fast some things were (it took only 9 minutes to send a telegram from London to Bombay!), but were also caught off-guard by the slowness of other aspects of Victorian life (convalescent homes let patients stay by the seaside for a month or more to recover their health). I enjoyed hearing the ways people reasoned their way through the questions, and some even gasped or cheered when they discovered their hunches were correct. In the end, my aim was to help people imagine more concretely what life was like in the 1800s, so I was really pleased when one person reported that the event made her “reevaluate a nostalgic view of the Victorian era.”

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Hosanna Krienke, in Victorian dress, letting participants know they’re running out of time to answer! Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Eager to find out if they are correct! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston

My ‘telegraphic tweeting’ activity introduced visitors to the full experience of sending an ‘instant’ message in the Victorian age. After considering many of the practicalities of sending a telegram, from the limitations of post office opening hours to the relatively high cost of sending a mere 20 words, they were then encouraged to have a go at sending their chosen message to another visitor ‘across the line'(or, rather, table) using one of the replica telegraph apparatuses. It was great to see that people from a wide range of age groups had fun trying out this activity – some of the children who attended were natural ‘Morse coders’, and some of the adults enjoyed trying to bemuse their counterparts across the table by sending messages in foreign languages!


Tapping out a Morse message. Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Receiving and decoding – the effort is palpable! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Alison Moulds

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ introduced visitors to the pressures of retail work in the late nineteenth century. The title was drawn from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book about the plight of shop assistants, and I used pie charts to explore the long hours worked by those in retail, drawing on case studies from fiction, periodicals, autobiographies, and polemical writing. People were particularly surprised and aghast to hear about the demands placed on teenaged apprentices and the pressures of the ‘living-in’ system, which blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Visitors used blank pie charts and colouring pencils to plot their own average working day, and shared their retail work ‘horror stories’ on our interactive board. There were common themes between then and now, namely the long hours, the expectation to stand rather than sit, and the perennially rude customers. One women told me how, when working in a supermarket, a customer threw broccoli at her after hearing they’d run out of brie! In the feedback, several visitors suggested the activity had prompted them to find a new appreciation of our modern work-life balance.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Alison Moulds looks on as participants colour in their own ‘A Day in the Life’ charts by the ‘Retail Horror Stories’ board. Photo: Ian Wallman


One member of the public shades in her ‘work time’. Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sally Frampton

In the ‘Emergency’ quiz we introduced visitors to the history of first aid, as we got people sorting fact from fiction and past from present by testing them on first aid trivia. The development of the first aid movement was an important aspect to people’s growing awareness of the health risks of modern life in the nineteenth century, as organisations like the St. John Ambulance Association trained up railway workers, miners, police officers and others to deal with the accidents and illnesses that seemed to arise from new technologies and industries. For the game, visitors were given ten statements relating to first aid. They then had to decide whether they related to first aid practices in the past, current day first aid practice…or whether we had made it up! The idea was to get people thinking about how ideas and practices can come in and go out of fashion, and how even the strangest practices from the past were based upon theories that appeared valid at the time. For example, ‘Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious person will revive them’ (past) introduced people to the use of tobacco smoke enemas in the nineteenth century for resuscitation, a medical technology which seems completely bizarre now but which had its roots in the belief that quickly administering warmth and stimulation could be effective in to reviving the near dead. The tobacco enema also led to conversations about early attempts by doctors to find effective resuscitation techniques. The statement ‘a snakebite can be treated by sucking the poison out from the wound’ was another one that generated debate. Until relatively recently the practice was recommended in first aid manuals, but it today considered ineffective, and yet most people thought it a ‘present’ day practice, because it is still seen in TV and films. This led to discussion about how even when new medical evidence proves a medical idea is not right, the idea can linger on in wider culture.

Visitors enjoyed learning weird and wonderful facts about first aid and emergency medicine and the game proved a good way to get people thinking about first aid and to need to keep up-to-date with the current advice about what to do in an emergency!

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Our resident Victorian nurse, Dr. Sally Frampton, administers advice to players. Photo: Ian Wallman


Who knew Victorian First Aid could be so fun?! (We had a hunch). Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

My exhibition, ‘Gastric Time’ started with a story. It was the story of Alexis St Martin, a Canadian man who was shot in the abdomen in 1822, which left him with a hole in his stomach through which the workings of digestion were made visible! People were intrigued and disgusted in equal measure as I recounted how American army surgeon William Beaumont carried out a series of experiments on St Martin which involved dipping bits of food into his stomach on a silk string and timing how long they took to break down! The language of ‘digestibility’ that was produced from the experiments led to a new way of thinking about food: in terms of time. After discussing how Victorian meals and dietetic rules differed from their modern experiences, they were keen to put their own hands in my oversized woollen stomach to choose their meals and try to beat the clock-time dice. If they succeeding in “digesting” 5 meals within 24 hours—symbolised by a giant steam-punk clock face—they were rewarded with a “good digestion” sticker, if not they were diagnosed with chronic indigestion! People enjoyed thinking about food in relation to broader ideas about standardising and controlling bodily processes and were not too shy to sit on our Victorian commode! My advertisement for a “rocking horse” cure for indigestion gave one man a new outlook on the French phrase “aller à la selle” (to have a bowel movement), while the exhibition as a whole purportedly changed many attitudes to dietary choices and even inspired a new MPhil project!


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown engaging her audience. Photo: Ian Wallman


Happy game players – some already wearing stomach stickers! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sarah Green

‘Clusters of hard wart-like growths around anus, causing considerable discomfort’. This was the kind of symptom that those visiting the Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola were (hopefully) surprised to be presented with. And things didn’t get much better from there. In an age without antibiotics, chances of recovery from syphilis, gonorrhoea, and a whole host of other nasties were slim. By dipping into the tombola drum, visitors had assigned to them a variety of treatments that were at best useless, and at worst downright painful. Fancy a urethral cauterization? A spiked ring to wear round the penis at night? A washing out of the intimate parts with champagne? No, me neither. And that, as visitors came to realize, was the slow, tedious and repetitive nature of Victorian sexual disease treatment. As one visitor commented, ‘I’m glad I got my STI in 2018!’

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Sarah Green explains how the Sexual Health Tombola works. Pick a card, any card… Photo: Ian Wallman


One of the more horrifying treatments for problems of a sexual nature. Photo: Ian Wallman


We also had an extremely popular Victorian photo booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. (We may have got in on the action ourselves at the end of the evening…).


They’ve got props at the ready and poses sorted… Photo: Ian Wallman

VictorianSpeedEventatMuseumoftheHistoryofSciencebyIanWallman-5889 (1).jpg

…e voilà! Photo printed (a bit more instantaneously than in Victorian times). Photo: Ian Wallman


None of this would have been possible without a collaboration with colleagues at the Museum of the History of Science, especially Robyn Haggard: thank you for lending us your space to us – it formed the perfect backdrop for our research! For our Victorian get-up, we kindly thank the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, and for our wonderful props, The Prop Factory

Most of all, thank you to our photographer, Ian Wallman, for capturing all the different facets of #VictorianSpeed so beautifully!

Thank you to everyone who came

or, in Morse Code,

– …. .- -. -.- / -.– — ..- / – — / . …- . .-. -.– — -. . / .– …. — / -.-. .- — .


Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

PS. I got caught taking twitter photos by our fabulous photographer, Ian Wallman…

On the Subject of Speed… Thomas Hardy

TH statue front300

Thomas Hardy in statue form, presiding over the Top O’ Town, Dorchester. Photo: C. Charlwood


Born in 1840 in rural Dorset but writing up until his death in 1928, English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy witnessed dramatic social, scientific and technological changes. Though perhaps not the obvious place to look for evidence of Victorian speed, Hardy’s poetry indicates his perception that the pace of modern life had increased drastically – and that he was out of joint, the ‘time-torn man’ of his poem ‘A Broken Appointment’.

In the poem ‘Places’ – from the ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written on the sudden death of his first wife, Emma – Hardy ends by noting that ‘one there is’ whose ‘mind calls back’ past experiences, and plays the past off against the present by claiming that past occurrences have

a savour that scenes in being lack,

And a presence more than the actual brings;

[…] to-day is beneaped and stale,

              And its urgent clack

              But a vapid tale.

from ‘Places’ (1913)

‘Scenes in being’ are robbed of meaning and depth here, with only the past offering the rich experience for the senses that ‘savour’ indicates. Hardy deliberately uses the archaic ‘beneaped’ to characterise ‘to-day’, satirising modernity’s progress with an image of a ship left aground by the tide: the modern is caught in an old-fashioned linguistic predicament. ‘To-day’ is sonically characterised by an ‘urgent clack’, a mechanised noise which noticeably rhymes with ‘lack’, and whose consonant clusters sound ugly and disrupt the supposed enjambment.

The very early poem ‘She, to Him III’, from 1866, hears the speaker feeling ‘Despised by souls of Now, who would disjoint | The mind from memory, making Life all aim’. Forty-seven years before Hardy wrote ‘Places’, the present (here anthropomorphised into ‘Now’) is already ‘urgent’, insistent in its the alliteration on ‘all aim’. While the enjambment preserves the continuity with ‘memory’ and the past, the line break visually enacts the ‘disjoint[ure]’ the speaker feels.

The forward progress inherent in ‘all aim’ is mirrored at the end of Hardy’s poem ‘Old Furniture’, when, after stanzas of reminiscing about ancestors who’d previously handled these objects, the speaker berates himself with

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,

              The world has no use for one to-day

Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!

from ‘Old Furniture’

‘To-day’ is again revealed as a time which does not allow for stationary contemplation, where the mind is busy but the body inactive. Despite the jaunty exclamation, the gross instrumentality of society is glimpsed in its faux horror at ‘one’ who is currently ‘no aim pursuing’. Citizens are of ‘use’ only when engaged in ‘doing’ something.

While ‘doing’ in part fits the rhyme scheme, it also bears on modern notions of an overworked, busy life. There’s been an increased uptake of mindfulness, a therapeutic practice which brings one’s attention back to the present moment. Guided mindfulness meditation explicitly tries to bring people back to a state of simply being, rather than the ‘doing’ that defines our waking hours – and that Hardy felt under pressure to socially perform. The need for mindfulness, and the popularity of mindfulness apps such as Headspace, shows that – for us as for the Victorians – one of the diseases of modern life is the disease of always doing, with its related problems of stress, anxiety and sleeplessness. Learning to do, and feeling under pressure constantly to be productive, leaves us struggling to be in the moment, be human, and ultimately be happy. That is why I’ve always found the end of ‘Old Furniture’ so devastating: the speaker turns from his individual, helpful reflections, back to those actions deemed socially appropriate.

However, if you’re thinking of writing Hardy off as an old stick-in-the-mud who grumbled in the face of modernity, it’s not so simple. Inviting Edmund Gosse down to Dorchester on 18th August 1886, he promises to show him ‘one or two curious places in the neighbourhood recently opened up by the railway’, allowing for the advantages of the railway network in ‘open[ing] up’ previously inaccessible terrain. Hardy recognises the convenience of the trains, even if they didn’t have the same aesthetic qualities as former modes of transport:

I fear that the old type of country waggon, curved & painted on the front & back with conventional flowers, tendrils, &.c, has nearly disappeared, if not quite. A person might find a decrepit one by penetrating into the recesses of the country, away from railways.

Letter to Edward Hudson, April 1921

The technology of the train pushed local, homelier features into obscure countryside according to Hardy’s estimate, and even the most intrepid will still only find ‘decrepit’, rather than working, wagons. Only ‘away from railways’ can one encounter ‘the old’.

Hardy also travelled to London to see the newly-opened London Underground system and reported by letter to his sister on 19th February 1863 that ‘I tried the Underground Railway one day – Everything is excellently arranged’. As a claustrophobe and crowd-fearer, I can only guess that the Underground was a much more palatable experience in those days!

Society’s speeding up had its advantages and disadvantages. While Hardy was sensitive to behavioural changes – when his pace and practice of considered thought was deemed outmoded and unproductive – he more than conceded the benefits of the technological changes which made travel quicker and no doubt more comfortable.


Please comment to tell us where you have noticed speed changes in Victorian fiction, non-fiction and poetry!

TH statue back

The Hardy statue, letting the world get on as he sits in the sun. Photo: C. Charlwood

Something in the Air?

I have never been able to help but scoff at the success of bottled water as a concept. There is a rather counterintuitive correlation that I have observed between the popularity of the boutique brands grab-and-go sized bottles and the quality of the local water supply in a given area. The better the stuff you can have for free, the more Lycra-wrapped gym junkies and power-walkers one tends to encounter swigging overpriced imported alleged spring water, hand-bottled from the source on some Himalayan mountain top by a secretive order of blind monks. I take this phenomenon as confirmation of what I have always suspected: that the entire bottled water industry is one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on an ever-gullible public, driven by several ingenious advertising campaigns that managed to transform something that is literally available on tap for free into a must-have fashion accessory. It would be easy to decry it as a symptom of the vulgar celebrity culture and rampant consumerism that characterises our society – at what other point in history could this happen? Well, once again the nineteenth century has us beat, as I discovered recently.

Researching patent medicines can always be relied upon to throw up a few oddball inventions, but my recent discovery of Dr Carter Moffat’s Miraculous Ammoniaphone in the collections of the London Science Museum truly took the biscuit for me. The premise of the Ammoniaphone was that, since Italian opera singers were known throughout the world for the beauty of their voices, it stood to reason that the responsibility for this must have something to do with the quality of the air they breathed. Dr Moffat, a professor of chemistry, claimed to have spent thirty years experimenting with all kinds of chemicals with a view to improving the speaking and the singing voice, and it was during his time in Southern Italy, analysing the air and dew, that he at last hit upon the precise chemical formula that endowed the vegetation with its peculiar yellow-green tint, but also accounted for the “soft, melodious voice of the natives, and the grand balmy air redolent with delicious perfumes”. This was a combination of hydrogen peroxide and, most especially, ammonia, or so he maintained. At first glance, this may seem like an elaborate joke at the expense of the hygiene standards in Italian cities, but I can assure you, Dr Moffat was quite in earnest.

L0058011 Ammoniaphone, ‘for voice cultivation by chemical means’, Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Ammoniaphone, ‘for voice cultivation by chemical means’, English, 1871-1900. Top three quarter view. Light grey background Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Ammoniaphone, ‘for voice cultivation by chemical means’,
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Returning home to Glasgow, Dr Moffat continued his experiments and, after nine years of study, placed before the public an instrument that was, effectively, bottled air. Or, as the ads described it, highly concentrated artificially Italianised air in portable condition. The actual instrument consisted of about a foot of tubular metallic casing around a quantity of absorbent material saturated with Dr Moffat’s patented chemical compound, and a mouthpiece through which a current of air was drawn into the lungs. Aggressively (not to say unscrupulously) advertised, Dr Moffat was able to turn a tidy profit from its sale to vocalists, clergymen, public speakers, choirmasters, schoolmasters, parliamentarians, and enthusiastic amateurs of any of the above vocations, claiming that it would conserve and preserve the voice, expand its range upwards and downwards, and lend it an otherwise unobtainable purity, beauty and richness. Moreover, Dr Moffat conveniently stumbled onto the plethora of medical applications for the device, purportedly invaluable for the treatment of colds, coughs, asthma, aphonia, bronchitis, consumptions, loss of voice, deafness, and all affections of the throat and chest. All for the low, low price of 27 shillings. But wait, there’s more! Once your Ammoniaphone was exhausted, you could send it to the Medical Battery Company to be re-filled – for a small fee.


If you’re feeling smug that even if we’ve bought into bottled water, at least we’re not big enough suckers to fall for the Ammoniaphone, don’t get too comfortable. In February this year, it was revealed that a family business in Dorset has started bottling and selling English countryside air at £80 a pop to Chinese connoisseurs who, according to the company’s PR savant, will “pick up different notes of grass, or near the sea… some saltiness in it as well”. The video in this Sky News article shows the process of air harvesting. It also shows that if you have a clever marketing strategy, you really need nothing else at all.

Melissa Dickson

Electric Stair-Climbers and Mobility in the Nineteenth Century

In his book on machines and modernity in India, historian David Arnold rightly points out that ‘big technologies’ like the telegraph and the railways have received more attention from scholars than smaller, ‘everyday technologies’ like the typewriter, the bicycle, the sewing-machine and the rice mill. Following the trajectory of these four technological devices in India, Arnold makes some pertinent comments about the nature of colonial power and its ability to control the use of technology, the relationship between technology and well-being and the myriad ways in which these modern contrivances were incorporated into the daily routines of Indians of diverse social backgrounds.

I am always reminded of Arnold’s book when flipping through the pages of technical and more general periodicals from the nineteenth century, marvelling at the great variety of technological innovations put forward by the engineering minds of the day. One example I have recently stumbled upon is the ‘electric stair-climber’ or the monte-escalier, as it was known in French: a stairlift devised by the civil engineer J. Alain Amiot, which was among the many ‘novelties’ exhibited in the Gallery of Machines at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. Describing the invention, Le Génie Civil highlighted the relevance of this ‘small technology’ to everyday life:  ‘In addition to the great industrial inventions, there are numerous other, of a more modest type, which are no less important to our daily needs and which provide us with a host of services whose necessity we have come to appreciate more every day’.

Machinery Gallery, 1889

Interior view of the Gallery of Machines, Exposition Universelle, 1889, Paris (Source: Library of Congress)

Elevators were already familiar to Parisians at the time when the monte-escalier began to vie for the attention of the public. They were particularly useful in ‘modern’, multi-storied buildings, where residents and visitors who used them were spared the ‘fatigue of climbing of stairs’. Le Génie Civil even claimed that the use of elevators was connected to a rise in preference for upper-story apartments, where air was ‘healthier and the dust and noise of the street below could not reach so easily’.

The electric stair-climber resembled the elevator in many respects and press accounts of Amiot’s invention were careful to emphasize the fact that the new technology was by no means intended to compete with the former, but was much less ambitious in scope. The stair-climber was designed for use in buildings where the transport of persons was limited, such as private residences, or where it could complement the use of the elevator, for example in hotels. Unlike the elevator, which could transport people from the ground floor to the top of the building, the stair-climber was envisaged for use between floors, with each climber functioning independently from the ones on the other floors. Also unlike the elevator, a stair-climber could only be used to transport one person at a time, either standing or seated. Among its advantages were a lower price and the compact design: much like contemporary stairlifts, Amiot’s monte-escalier could be folded when not in use and it only occupied approximately 30 centimetres of the total width of the stairs, thus enabling people to pass by each other without exposing themselves to the danger of accidents.

Monte-esclaier electrique

Another advantage was the fact that stair-climbers could be easily installed in older buildings that did not have enough space to accommodate the bulky cage of elevators. Unlike this more elaborate contrivance, a stair-climber consisted of only three parts: a ‘guide’ made of two parallel flat iron rods which were supported on the balustrade, a movable platform and a motor. Although the motor could be either electric or hydraulic, like in the case of elevators, by this time there was a visible move towards the use of the former type of device. As one press report pointed out, in the case of elevators, this trend could be traced back to the International Exhibition of Electricity held in Paris in 1881, when proposals were made for the replacement of hydraulic engines with electric ones on elevators.

Monte-escalier de M J Alain Amiot

One intriguing aspect of these early French reports about the monte-escalier is that they make no mention of the potential use of this innovation to assist the mobility of elderly or disabled people. Indeed, it is unclear from the available evidence whether Amiot had envisaged such a field of use. But as news of his invention spread to other corners of the globe via the medium of newspapers and magazines, people began to speculate that the device could also be useful to those afflicted by mobility problems. Across the Atlantic, the editor of the Manufacturer and Builder of New York ended his description of the ‘electric stair-climber’ by anticipating that, ‘The increasing facilities for employing the electric current for power, should render a device of this kind practicable on the score of cost, and it will doubtless prove to be useful and popular in many situations. It would be particularly valuable for invalid members of a household.’ This prediction proved true, as the advertisement below, dating from 1933, also demonstrates. Unlike the earlier French models, the ‘electric passenger lift for the home’ designed by the Inclinator Company of America was aimed specifically at “all who are afflicted with ‘polio’, impaired heart action, arthritis, and the infirmities of age. Where physical disabilities make stair-climbing distressing or tiresome these modern conveniences are a necessity, permitting the invalid to avoid painful and fatiguing efforts.” The design of the American stairlift was similar to that of its predecessor and, indeed, to contemporary stairlifts that have become indispensable in the care of the elderly and the disabled.

Amelia Bonea

Requiem for a Cliché

One of the hallmarks of the sci-fi horror genre is its tendency to generate instant clichés. In the digital age, the lag-time between the initial appearance of an innovative and genuinely frightening cinematic moment and its inevitable end in yawn-inducing familiarity is extraordinarily brief. Of course, this is not surprising. A scare by its very nature needs to be unexpected. Once we are able to see it coming, its potency is lost. But, like all good monsters, it dies at least twice, its double-death inhering in its especial vulnerability to parody. Thus, the truly disturbing creature created for the Alien films by H.R. Giger, a nightmarish meld of the mechanical, the bestial and perverse sexuality, before it descended into the unbelievable crassness of the Alien vs. Predator spinoff franchise twenty-five years and some half dozen films after its debut, had actually already reached its use-by-date as a scare tactic by the time of the first sequel. Within a year of 1986’s Aliens, Mel Brooks had the monster burst from John Hurt’s stomach once again, this time to perform a Looney Tunes-style rendition of “Hello, Ma Baby” complete with a straw boater, in Spaceballs.

Its ignominious future notwithstanding, back in 1979, Giger’s alien design was revolutionary because it departed from the tentacled type that had become the well-worn and utterly expected shape assumed by extra-terrestrial lifeforms in cinema. Giger’s alien found its monstrousness by drawing upon resources from outside the folkloric tradition. In this way, Giger mirrored the earlier radical break that had given rise to the very kind of alien-octopus he sought to distance himself from, the kind of creature epitomised by those that appeared in the later tales of the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). As China Miéville notes, “rather than werewolves, vampires, or ghosts, Lovecraft’s monsters are agglomerations of bubbles, barrels, cones, and corpses, patchworked from cephalopods, insects, crustaceans, and other fauna, notable particularly for their absence from the traditional Western monstrous.” Cephalopods were a favourite of Lovecraft’s, with the tentacle becoming his default type of monstrous limb but one which had previously seen proto-iterations in the fantastic horrors of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo (Miéville 512).

20000 Leagues Under SeaEngraving of Captain Nemo viewing a giant squid from  the Nautilus submarine, originally featured in the Hetzel edition (1870) of 20,000 Lieues Sous Les Mers

It is not difficult to point to concerns in contemporary culture that may have given rise to Giger’s seductive biomechanical alien, such as the deepening in the complexity of our understanding of gender and sexuality, and our increased dependence on technology and machinery for our very existence. We may similarly speculate as to why the correlation between the alien and the octopus might have had stronger resonances within the nineteenth-century consciousness. I would posit a connection between the tentacle – this flexible, elongated, and generally highly receptive organ – and the new pervasiveness of the nervous system in nineteenth-century constructions of modern life. This is made quite clear by the frequent conflation of tentacles and nerves in the portrayal in the period of alien and monstrous races.

Like the human-eating ‘Sea Raiders’ of Wells’s 1896 short story,  the bizarre creatures to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), and the monstrous squid in Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) and later in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the creatures that inhabit aliens worlds are complex masses of brains, tentacles, coils, and nervous centres, and they evoke the disturbing sense that they conceal an intelligence superior to humanity behind an alien, unknowable form. Explicitly compared to the octopus by an eye witness to their invasion, Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds are, like the cephalopod, comprised of highly complex nervous systems arranged around a comparatively large and almost transparent brain. Each Martian is approximately four foot in diameter, the majority of which consists of “the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear and tactile tentacles”. Similarly, the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites in The First Men on the Moon is simply a “marvellous gigantic ganglion” that relays sensations and neural commands across the vast network of Selenite minds.

dudouyt-martians-war-of-the-worldsM. Dudouyt’s vision of the Martians from the 1917 edition of War of the Worlds

This, then, might be the third death to which the genuine thrill is doomed. Since its efficacy depends upon its ability to tap into anxieties and preoccupations of its specific historical moment, once these conditions that supported it no longer exist, it is left to flounder as ungainly as a squid out of water.

Melissa Dickson

Be Still My Beating Heart

One frequently made observation about the nineteenth century is that it was marked by a number of breakthroughs in medicine and the sciences which revealed forces that shape humanity – as individuals and as a species – whose existence was previously unsuspected. Our understanding of ourselves was changed at a fundamental level by the new knowledge of these hidden operations that had been invisibly at work within us since prehistory. Darwin’s theory laid bare the contingency of our existence in the struggle for survival, while Freud pointed to the seething chaos of the unconscious. Man’s inner world was suddenly mappable, yet worryingly more obscure at the time. Untold volumes have been devoted to the defining shifts these two theories brought about and the anxieties they produced, observable in seemingly every facet of life, the subject’s vastness and complexity defeating any meaningful attempt at summary. Easier to take in at a glance is the somewhat less epochal advance that accomplished a similar kind of inside-outing: the advent of the stethoscope.

Credit for the invention goes to a young French physician René Laennec, who spent the early decades of the nineteenth century investigating the correlations between his patients’ bodily sounds and their medical conditions. His research initially took the form of a long and painstaking process of carefully matching the sounds he detected during his assessment of patients with the physical changes in diseased organs that could he observed during their subsequent autopsies, Laennec evidently subscribing to the “eggs for omelettes” theory of medicine. He stumbled upon the device for which he is remembered when, in 1816 while struggling to examine an obese girl with symptoms of heart disease, Laennec rolled up a piece of cardboard, applied one end to his patient’s chest and the other end to his own ear, thus creating the first stethoscope. Elaborating on this concept to design his wooden, cylindrical tube, pictured in use here at a Parisian hospital, Laennec published in 1819 a 900 hundred page treatise on the art of mediate auscultation, filled with descriptions of the various normal, abnormal, and pathological sounds he had detected through use of the stethoscope and the diseases they signified.

Laennec StethoscopeLaennec using his stethoscope at the Hospital Necker

There were inherent difficulties, however, in describing the various sounds the stethoscope made audible that were to tax Laennec’s metaphoric reserves to their utmost. While some descriptions where relatively straightforward – the rush of wind through a small orifice, for instance – others were decidedly outlandish. He likened a particular lung condition to the creaking of the leather of a new saddle, and yet another to the sound produced by stroking the head of a cat while the animal is purring.

It was not only doctors who were confronted by confusion brought about by the new clarity of insight the stethoscope provided. As Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine noted in 1847, the stethoscope had become a focal point of patients’ hopes, anxieties, dread, and horror:

The stethoscope has long ceased to excite merely professional interest. There are few families to whom it has not proved an object of horror and the saddest remembrance, as connected with the loss of dear relatives […] As an instrument on which the hopes and fears, and one may also say the destinies of mankind, so largely hang, it appears to present a fit subject for poetic treatment.

The ensuing poem is fairly long, but, by way of closing, the opening stanza illustrates quite well the peculiar place the instrument occupied in the nineteenth century consciousness at the very junction between ignorance and understanding:

Stethoscope! Thou simple tube,

Clarion of the yawning tomb,

Unto me thou seem’st to be

A very trump of doom.

Wielding thee, the grave physician,

By the trembling patient stands,

Like some deftly skilled musician;

Strange! The trumpet in his hands,

Whilst the sufferer’s eyeball glistens

Full of hope and full of fear,

Quietly he bends and listens

With his quick, accustomed ear –

Waiteth until thou shalt tell

Tidings of the war within:

In the battle and the strife,

Is it death, or is if life,

That the fought-for prize shall win?

Melissa Dickson

Telegraphs, Electromagnetic Polkas and the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert

When I was a teenager growing up in a tiny border town in Romania, we used to look forward to the first day of the year, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra would play its traditional New Year’s Day Concert. I remember being fascinated by the glittering chandeliers, the massive, colourful bouquets of flowers, the guests from all over the world sporting their traditional attires and, of course, the music. Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz The Blue Danube was a favourite with us, perhaps because the music had a tinge of familiarity: the Danube was the artery which connected us to the rest of Europe and, via the Black Sea, even with the rest of the world. Listening to the waltz was like a reminder of the myriad ways in which our lives and histories had been intertwined with the history of this beautiful and sometimes capricious river. The Vienna Concert often became a topic of discussion among classmates and friends; for our music teacher, in particular, admitting that you didn’t watch the concert was just as objectionable as saying that you hadn’t done your holiday homework.

After I moved away and began my peregrinations around the world, I forgot about Vienna and its glamorous New Year’s Day Concert. Every now and then a friend would ask whether I was still watching it—to which my answer was an almost invariable “no”. But this year was different. As I was browsing idly the TV channels on the first day of the year, I happened upon the BBC broadcast of the event. What’s more, this year’s concert took place under the baton of the celebrated Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and marked the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna and the 200th anniversary of the Vienna University of Technology. Little wonder then that the repertoire included compositions with intriguing names such as “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka), “Accelerationen” (Accelerations), “Mit Dampf” (At Full Steam). For me, this was a new perspective on the New Year’s Day Concert and the music of the Strauss family, one which is quite connected with my professional interest in steam engines, telegraphy and other things electric.

It turns out that the Viennese waltzes and polkas were well attuned to the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. A quick look at the musical heritage of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) shows the extent to which his music documented the technological developments of his age (or celebrated the old ones). Here are some examples, on topics ranging from the pigeon post to the telegraph and the telephone:

  • “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka, 1852)
  • “Motor-quadrille” (Motor Quadrille, 1853)
  • “Schnellpost-Polka” (Express Mail Polka, 1854)
  • “Taubenpost Polka” (Pigeon Post Polka, 1860)
  • “Telegrafische Depeschen Waltzer” (Telegraphic Despatches Waltz, 1857)
  • “Motoren Waltzer” (Motors Waltz, 1862)
  • “Elektrofor-Polka” (Electrophorus Polka, 1865)
  • “Telegramme” (Telegrams, 1867)
  • “Durch’s Telephon Polka” (Over the Telephone Polka, 1890)
  • “Telephonische Nachrichten Polka” (Telephonic Messages Polka, 1894)

Many of these compositions were performed for specific audiences. The “Electromagnetic Polka”, for instance, was dedicated, quite fittingly, to the Vienna engineering students on the occasion of their ball (which, by the way, is Vienna’s oldest ball). The telegraph and telephone-themed compositions, on the other hand, were presented at the Concordia Ball, an annual event organized by the Concordia Association of Viennese Authors and Journalists. The association between telegraphy and journalism was hardly surprising, especially since in my doctoral dissertation I had dealt exactly with this topic: how the telegraph was used to report news in nineteenth-century India. But it was nevertheless fascinating to hear how Strauss transformed the sounds associated with the working of a telegraph instrument into music, thus creating a different type of archive which documents the history of this technology from an alternative, more … aural angle. If you listen carefully to the “Telegraphic Despatches Waltz” you can hear the tapping sound of the telegraph key; in fact, you can almost hear how the messages are transmitted over the wires.

Clearly, Strauss used music to celebrate the technological achievements of his time, but perhaps there was also more music about the telegraph than we usually acknowledge (there was also more noise about it, as many telegraph operators would have readily testified). For Strauss, the telegraph was not simply a medium for sending impersonal, concise, lapidary messages, as it often happened with market quotations and political news; it was also a means of transmitting music. The illustration below shows him seated in a corner, composing his “Telegrams Waltz”. In the opposite corner, his wife Henrietta Treffz, herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano, reads his musical telegram as it is being despatched via the five telegraphic wires of the musical stave. In many ways, this illustration is emblematic of a common theme in much nineteenth-century discourse: the telegraph as a vehicle for establishing connections between people, businesses, nations. But Strauss himself would have been aware that the telegraph could break, as well as make, connections. Rumour has it that in 1856, when the Viennese press published reports of his alleged marriage in St Petersburg, Strauss lost no time in disavowing the news. And he did so by telegraph.

Telegramme, Strauss

The Brain Child of Mariano Luigi Patrizi

If the project of medical science may be described as the exploration of the human body, then surely its final, vastest, most mysterious frontier is the brain. In the last few years, several phenomenal advances in neuroscience have radically altered the way we understand our minds and promise to lead us towards potential treatments for diseases affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s and ALS. Researchers from the University of Leicester’s Centre for Systems Neuroscience led by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga made headlines in 2008 when they ascertained that individual cells in the brain are dedicated to coding specific pieces of information. By measuring with electrodes the activity of about one hundred of each subject’s neurons in response to stimuli, the team were able to identify different cells that fired when the patients were shown photographs of particular celebrities and landmarks. One woman possessed a cell that reacted to images of Jennifer Aniston, another a cell that fired for Bill Clinton, and another appeared dedicated to the Sydney Opera House. The team’s findings effectively rewrote the current theories on how the brain processes images and stores memories, and there is hope that the research could be implemented in the emerging field of neurally-controlled prostheses. For all that has been discovered, however, there is still an enormous amount about the function of the brain that remains opaque to us. The more complex workings of our memories, intelligence, emotion – the why and how of all these are questions science is still endeavouring to answer, as it has been since the very beginning.
Fairly fundamental to the study of the brain is the ability to observe it in action, something that was difficult to do prior to the advent of EEG. Functioning brains were frustratingly inaccessible, enclosed behind the walls of the skull, which presented a substantial obstacle to the nineteenth century’s pioneers of neuroscience. One of the first breaks in the case came in 1895, when a thirteen-year-old woodcutter’s assistant from Bramans in Savoy, Emanuele Favre, was severely wounded by the glancing blow of an axe. The accident cleaved the bones of his skull across more than three inches, nearly splitting his head in two. Miraculously, he survived. When the wound healed, however, the bone did not fully cover the exposed brain, leaving it covered only by a layer of skin. It was in this condition that Emanuele came to the attention of the Italian professor Mariano Patrizi, a young and ambitious physiologist in Turin interested in the effects of music upon the human body and brain and in particular upon the cerebral circulation of blood. Emanuele’s extraordinary condition made him an ideal subject for Patrizi’s experiments.
Emanuel Favre
Thirteen-year old Emanuele Favre of Savoy, with a three-inch long scar along the top of his skull
In order to determine the progress of the circulation of blood in the brain and to register the cerebral pulsations, Patrizi connected Emanuele to a device known as a plethysmograph and then played different kinds of music to him. From the resulting tables produced by this apparatus, Patrizi concluded that every melody accelerated the flow of blood through the brain, and that different intonations and rhythms elevated the cerebral pulse. Music, Patrizi claimed, had visible, tangible effects upon the brain and upon bodily functions.
The plethysmograph, attached to the boy’s head, measured and recorded the pulse in the brain
Time presses on and we learn, adapt, and progress, but some things do not change as much as we might think. Though Patrizi and Quian Quiroga, of course, had vastly different technologies at their disposals, not to mention educations and medical understandings that would have been mutually unrecognisable, it is interesting to note the similarity of their methodologies. There is, it would seem, little else we can do when confronted with the inscrutable three-pound lump of grey matter we all carry within our heads except put things in front of it and see as best we can what it does.
Melissa Dickson

The Bane of Modern Technology

The tragedy of comedy, for those who work at creating it, at least, is that jokes will go off. This is a phenomenon familiar to joke-receivers as much as tellers. Who does not detect a fishy odour whenever someone begins a tale with a man walking into a bar? Even the best ones can only be cellared for so long before they turn, as anyone passingly acquainted with the classics will attest. The eternal joke is very rare; little always has and always will work. Pratfalls, maybe – schoolboy humour, broadly speaking, but the shelf-life of satire or any jokes involving social commentary tends to be shorter, not surprisingly, given the load of cultural context they have to bear in order to be intelligible. I have a lot of pity for these miserable, rotten gags, struggling vainly to retain their relevance. I try to force a laugh, or chuckle politely, and I find it quite heartening when an old joke succeeds at reinventing itself, as they occasionally do. I came across one such recently when I was picking through the comedic wasteland of Punch, that inexhaustible repository of mid-nineteenth century England’s often outworn wit, its pages filled with caricatures of obese be-whiskered patriarchs stuffing their elastic maws with oversize slices of Victoria sponge inscribed “Duty on Hair-Powder Act”, inscrutable drolleries so many historical and literary researchers have leafed through, bemused or benumbed. This is it:

Punch Forecasts

It caught my eye because it reminded me of an image I was shown not long ago, snapped of a gaggle of girls – the photographer’s teenaged daughter and her friends – seated in a bedroom, allegedly “hanging out together,” the photographer had claimed, each absorbed in her own smartphone. Different technology, same joke, underpinned, I think, by the same anxiety that real human interaction, mediated by nothing bar visceral experience, is under threat from the technological innovations that we have assimilated into our daily lives. By using such devices, these artists claim, we are somehow damaging ourselves and relationships. I thought, too, of Michael Leunig’s famous sunrise cartoon, which is another variation on the theme:

Leunig Cartoon

What is this essential, authentic, real communication with whose fate we are so vitally concerned that this joke in its various manifestations keeps becoming relevant? Can it really be said to exist at all? Such a position would seem to presuppose that there is nothing lost in face-to-face conversation, which is, on consideration, untenable. If I talk to you directly, is my expression not immediately limited by the degree to which I am capable of rendering my subjective experience into language? And I would be doing it off the cuff, at that. Of course, I could write down what I want to tell you, thereby permitting me to articulate the ideas I want to communicate to you more fully. I wouldn’t need anything as modish as these suspect products of “technology” to do that, would I, simply to write? Unless you wanted to call writing itself technology, and worry that it might have some sort of insidious effect on our minds, that it might implant forgetfulness in our very souls, say. But what sort of intelligent person would ever be concerned about that? Oh, wait… Plato was. No joke!

Melissa Dickson